Not too long ago, I lost a very lucrative job here in Arizona because I speak English. That's right. I had a great offer from a worldwide education television channel in Scottsdale that took the job away from me when they realized Spanish is my second language — not my first.
I don't recall the exact timeline, and I believe the company no longer exists, but I'll never forget the woman who fired me as soon as she hired me. It was all very Project Runway. I was in. Then I was out. I even got the heave-ho from a beautiful blonde with an up-do. She wore a tailored red suit jacket and dress, tasteful gold jewelry, and fierce high heels. Very Scottsdale. Very trophy-wife-of-a-senator. She smelled great as she told me how sorry she was that my Spanish sucked in comparison to the native speakers who worked at the company. It wasn't that I didn't speak fluent Spanish. I do. It was that I didn't sound like a Mexican. My boss politely suggested that, perhaps, I could take some classes or just move somewhere so I could be immersed in Spanish and lose my American accent.
Here's the awkward part: She didn't speak Spanish at all. I stupidly admitted to her that my Nana Mary (that means Grandmother Mary in Spanish) tells me that I have a U.S. sound when I speak her native tongue. In other words, my Nana can tell I wasn't born in Mexico. As I explained this to the woman, I saw her plucked eyebrows rise as a precursor to the dreaded ax.
Since then, one truth remains: English bores the fuck out of me.
By the way, my name is Marcos. Hello. Welcome to my column. It's all about Latino culture. But I should warn you: I am not every Latino. At all, at all, at all, at all.
I'm the immigrant b-side. I am brown. I am gay. I'm a journalist. I'm an actor. I'm American. I'm Mexican. I'm Chicano. I'm not a big fan of mariachi music. But I like the tight costumes the musicians wear. I love sushi — especially anything crafted by Sea Saw's Nobuo Fukuda. My mom is beautiful, joyful, and selfless. She has amazing skin. I'm trying to find her a man — she deserves it. My parents divorced a long time ago. My dad was hired by Governor Bruce Babbitt and fired by Governor Evan Mecham. He was a founding member of Chicanos Por La Causa. He was the victim of a hit-and-run. Now, he e-mails me all day long. My grandfather was a sheriff here in Phoenix at the turn of the last century. My mom's family owned and operated The Phoenix Mattress Factory on 15th Street and Adams until that Debbie Gaby took over the planet with Sleep America. Just kidding, Debs. I love hearing your accent when you speak English. If only I could do the same justice to Spanish. Because at the moment, my native tongue irritates me.
Don't misunderstand me. I greatly appreciate the quality and the grand historical worth of English — Langston Hughes does make me smile, Shakespeare has the same effect now and again, and the lyrics to Hairspray draw my full attention. But lately, I find that the English language has grown up and become an arrogant little bitch.
The debate over English in our country is absurd. Why are we all fighting to learn one single language? That's dumb. People in other countries learn multiple languages. They are better because of it. I am living proof that monolingualism based in English is an absurd foil. So I laugh when I hear people complain about immigrants who speak other languages in the U.S.A. The rallying cry of, "They'll never find work if they don't speak English!" is just wrong. I speak English quite well after earning multiple degrees from Stanford University — and I have only shared one example from a long string of lost opportunities based on the fact that I'm not a native Spanish-speaker.
What concerns me more is that linguistic arrogance has been planted in Arizona students and schools.
Have you ever heard of the Phoenix Sister Cities Youth Ambassador Program? I often serve on the selection committee. Each spring, we choose a class of high school juniors from Phoenix to take part in a summer exchange with families in our nine sister cities around the world. The program is smart, remarkable and necessary — especially during a time when other countries in the world see America as a threatening, inhospitable, fast-food dominatrix with a black riding crop.
One of our sister cities is Himeji, Japan. A couple of years ago, I was working with a group of students who had returned from the exchange. I asked one young man, who had scruffy blond hair and kind of a cool surfer-grunge look, about his Himeji experience.
He said, "Oh, it was really a pretty cool place and stuff. The only thing that sucked was the whole TV thing."
I said, "Oh, your Japanese family wouldn't let you watch TV?"
He said, "No, they totally would let me watch whatever I wanted — but it was in Japanese."
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I was all, "What do you mean?" He's all, "I was pissed 'cuz I had to watch Baywatch in Japanese."
Ummm. First of all, Baywatch. That's bad enough. But come the fuck on.
To this day, I wonder how this young man came to expect to hear English wherever he roams. Even Japan. Wow.
Truthfully, how boring is that?