I can’t remember the last time I audibly stammered to someone’s face, but I won’t hastily forget this occasion.
Today as I headed back from work, turning onto Chicago St. in my neighborhood of district-homages and sweating profusely after a two mile hike in the quintessentially dry heat of the southwest, a woman I’d passed once before noticed my friendly smile and returned the favor. Then, she uttered an entire conversation in rapid-fire Spanish. When she paused for my reaction, I opened my mouth and nothing came out… for several seconds.
Now before you go dismissing me as the ignorant Anglo-Saxon I made myself out to be on the corner of Chicago and Michigan, allow me to divulge a little history. Ever since I was mistakenly assigned Spanish Immersion History in the 6th grade, I’ve always taken Spanish classes. Not only was this decision based on the advantages the skill provides in the job market, but it also stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a household that doubled as a mini Mazatlan; bedecked in a vibrant, chili pepper color palette, adorned with a skull-faced Catrina or Frida or collection of alebrijes in every room, and owned by a woman whose obsession with Mexico bridged from her hacienda replica in Portland to a casa auténtica she inhabited for a time in Oaxaca. While I resided in this Latin American lifestyle with mi mamá, Spanish was spoken fluently under our roof, and the approbation I received in Spanish class reflected it.
Once I graduated from high school and money began to dictate my education, language was forced to take the wayside, and the extreme expectations art schools perpetuate extinguished any time or energy I had to devote to practicing a second language. It’s true what they say about retention diminishing once you’ve exited childhood, and I’m the perfect case study. As a high school student, I could understand and speak Spanish, easily read and write in the language, and even think in Spanish, but inconstant exposure has stripped away several of those capabilities, reducing me to someone who can understand what you’re saying, but won’t be able to respond unless you’re only question is, “How are you?”
I have to consider myself fortunate for retaining anything at all though–especially considering the fact that my summer job during college involved teaching art to over 150 Spanish-speaking middle school students. It’s a sure bet that if I hadn’t been able to understand the petty wisecracks my kids initially made behind my back, I would have never earned their respect. Personal experience and three years in the business taught me that teenagers are ruthless enough when they feel age inhibits adults from understanding them, let alone a language barrier. Step back into the shoes of a fourteen-year-old and come armed with comedic ripostes for every snide remark, however, and you’ll earn yourself some incredibly entertaining friends.
Today, years after my participation in the Spanish Honors Society and my stint as a middle school ringmaster, I reside in what several downtown Los Angelenos have described as “the ghetto,” but from my perspective it seems a lot like home–or what Mexico City will be like once I finally travel outside of this country. My community is predominantly Hispanic, the surrounding shops are mostly tiendas and mercados, and thus far only the beaming woman I met in the street today has attempted to make conversation, discussing things I understood (Isn’t it a beautiful, sunny day? How are you doing? Good? Well my dear, may the Holy Father in heaven watch over you and bless you with good health and a wonderful day!), but could only think to say, “¡Gr-gracias!” to in response.
It’s sad to think that a girl so smitten with audial and visual language, who used to sing classical arias in Italian, German, and French and who continues to create multi-lingual artwork, has to stammer her way through one phrase of Spanish. Call it a fluke and blame it on the heat of the day, the two mile trek on blistered, flip-flopped feet, or the preoccupied concentration with what on earth I could discuss in this blog today, but ultimately I think this shameful faux pas is a sign: time to whip out a sombrero in the guise of a thinking cap, seek the counsel of the venerated Rosetta Stone, and get back to broadening my mind, Sybill Trelawney style!
Growing up, I always gravitated toward male friends, assimilating into dude-dominated cliques that might have hosted one other girl, if that. For some strange adolescent reason that may have burgeoned into existence after watching one too many football games with my dad, I always felt I could relate more to men: I abhorred drama, my favorite hobby was laughing raucously at trivialities for hours on end, I could withstand a shopping mall for maybe an hour before my head started to swim, and I preferred, in male patois, to just “chill.”
I wasn’t a tomboy by any stretch of the imagination though. Sure, a Ukrainian woman with an indiscernible accent completely ignored my reference image and cut my hair so short it barely met my ears, producing a masculine visage that one of my fifth grade peers mistook for the ragged coiffure of a bully. And yes, there was that identical incident freshman year of high school when a Laotian hairstylist repeatedly asked me, “Dis sha?” until I succumbed to her brandished scissors, only to discover seconds later when fourteen inches of my hair lay in a frizzy heap on the floor that she’d been repeating, “This short?” But traumatic haircuts aside, my femininity always burst from the regrettably low-cut V-necks I naïvely wore throughout middle school; my brief but ferocious stint as a fashionista who persistently strutted the halls of Sunset High School in six-inch heels with no concern for the future stiletto-repellence I was steadily instigating; and my tendency to hyper-obsess over male celebrities (specifically the cast of Lord of the Rings and one particularly deified actor from the mediocrely received Holes), a once ceaseless pastime that only just recently dissipated with a college girl crush on Tom Hardy.
Proof of femininity aside, the great rapport I always felt with my male peers didn’t mean I was ostracized from female companionship. In fact, my whole middle school table–which had conveniently gone unnamed when we decided to create a map of all the cafeteria cliques (preps, jocks, Martha Stewarts, and so forth), despite the fact that it quite frankly seated of a bunch of band kids and the token choir chick (me)–consisted of ten girls and half as many guys, one of whom kept being recycled in the bizarre phenomenon of middle school dating.
In fact, my best friend of of the past, present, and forecasted future is a kid called Willy Jazz, or Beans, or any number of monikers older sisters can’t help but ascribe to their closest DNA double helix. And close, she is. In a family of two sisters spaced two years apart, it’s as if she was developed in vivo to be my twin, complete with the added benefit of (in her opinion) not actually being my twin. In a similar vein, my former life partner à la Spongebob and Patrick and my lone female counterpart in one of those male-driven coteries was a girl who shared my embarrassing fervor for celebrity worship and helped me maintain the concrete abs of my youth just by falling prey to hysteria every time we were in the same vicinity (including that eighth grade English class where a boy named Casey Griswald turned around and snapped, “Will you two stop laughing for Christ’s sake!?“).
Beyond that, I had great times with my girlfriends forming one-hit-wonder cover bands complete with promotional materials and costumed music videos; exchanging inappropriately unpolitical delegate notes during Model United Nations conferences where we were supposed to be discussing the fate of Luxembourg’s debt sustainability; terrorizing the IMDB message boards with the fictitious “Legface,” before we knew what the verb “to troll” even meant; spending hours in front of a mirror primping for a night of lychee cocktails 15 floors above the Portland cityscape at Departure; and even achieving the coveted Sex and the City foursome all girls dream of during one magical year of college.
But in my experience, little things always seem to come between gal pals, be it the petty life mistakes that one party refuses to forget or simply 2,844 miles of United States soil and disparate schedules that handicap the relationship. However, in a gigantic city like Los Angeles where the list of entertainment, events, boutiques, clubs, bars, drag shows, and tans just waiting to be garnered at our many beaches is endless and the handful of people I’ve met thus far pardonably need to devote the majority of their time to their burgeoning careers, I can’t help but reminisce about all the benefits of having girlfriends in your life. All the fashion ogling, all the amateur restaurant critiquing, all the club hopping in dresses we’ll consider passé shortly after breaking them in, all the exotic flavors Bartini has to offer, all the inevitable man talk that spans the gamut from congratulations to commiseration, and all the laughter that can’t resist emission in one another’s presence.
Thus, even with all its endless distractions, L.A. has yet to distract me from the one glaring thing it’s missing: all my amazing girls.