Speaking Spanish at work

I love fruit!

When I was about sixteen, my friend Reinaldo stopped by my house early one summer morning after the school year had ended. Of course, I was sleeping because I was relaxing from another demanding year at grammar school. He told me that he had found me a job at a fruit stand. I was surprised because I had never told him that I was looking for a job. Rey worked on a fruit truck that drove through the neighborhood and stopped to sell fruit and vegetables at the curbside. As a sixteen-year-old young man, I was impressed by his well-paying job and how he was so proud of it, epecially since Rey was only fifteen. Anyway, when they were buying their fruits and vegetables at the market before they started the day, the owner of a fruitstand asked Rey if he had any friends who spoke Spanish and English. The fruitstand was trying to attract Mexican customers since so many lived in the neighborhood. Rey immediately thought of me. Well, I liked the idea of working so I could have some spending money during the summer.

Well, when I went to the fruitstand, the manager told me that the owner was on vacation. I would have to work three days a week: Saturdays and Sundays, and another day during the week as needed. My duties included unloading produce from delivery truck and waiting on customers. If the customer was Mexican, I would have to wait on them in Spanish. I don’t remember how much I earned, but it seemed like a lot of money to me at the time. The owner was supposed to give me a raise when he returned from vacation, the manager told me. I worked there all summer and never once saw the owner.

Well, at first there weren’t that many Mexican customers, but the manager would call me to wait on anyone who looked Mexican. He decided who was or wasn’t Mexican just by their appearance. He was judging people based only on their appearance. And I, as a Mexican, wasn’t always so sure if they were Mexican or not. This kind of bothered me until I realized that he was always right. Now that I am older and wiser, I realize that he was exercising good business sense.

By the end of the summer, many Mexicans were shopping at the fruitstand. My friend Rey would stop by occasionally when they ran out of some product on the truck and they would buy it at cost from the fruitstand. He was so proud that he had found me such a great job. And I was so thankful to Rey for thinking of me for this job!

What did I learn from this experience? I still haven’t quite figured it out yet. But I’m sure that I learned something.

Social activism

Social activism is more than just signing petitions, campaigning for the right candidate, or demonstrating in public against a social injustice. I may not campaign for the right candidate or demonstrate against a social injustice by marching on the streets, but I am trying to better the world in my own way, the best I can. I believe that today’s youth needs role models. When I was growing up, I had plenty of role models through school, my friends, and their families. However, none of them were Mexican. At our grade school, the nuns always talked about what it would be like when we went to college–not IF we went to college, but rather, when we went to college. I really wanted to go to college because of that positive influence. Unfortunately, my mother was disappointed because I wanted to go to college. By the time I was in high school, she was divorced with six children and she had hoped I would work full-time to help her financially. I wanted to go to college so I wouldn’t have to work in a factory as she did. “Why do you want to go to college?” she asked me. “So I don’t have to work in a factory,” I said. She didn’t know what to say next. Finally, she said, “Mexicans don’t go to college!” “Yes, they do,” I said. “Well, show me one,” she said. I thought about all the Mexicans in the neighborhood that I knew or knew of, but not one was a college graduate, or even a college student. Had there been at least one Mexican college student in the neighborhood, I might have persuaded my mother to let me go to college. But I lived in the Back of the Yards neighborhood that has always been more of a port of entry for immigrants who eventually moved on; once they established themselves in this country, they moved out of the neighborhood to someplace better, anyplace else. So Mexicans did go to college, but by then they had moved out of our neighborhood.

Now, I let everyone know that I am a college graduate. I feel that I am a positive influence on struggling students of all backgrounds, but especially Hispanic students. A few have told me so. I have had adults of Hispanic and African-American descendency congratulate me for my academic achievements. They tell me, “Show them that we’re not all a bunch of dummies!” And this is how I plan to be socially active. This is my way of making the world a better place.

Mexican college students can make a difference, too!

Life in Mexico

Mexico D.F.

Once when I was I boy, I visited Mexico and I realized that I wasn’t Mexican. I was American! All my Mexican cousins told me so. I didn’t speak Spanish as well as them. My Spanish vocabulary was lacking compared to them. I always had to stop to think in order put my thoughts into Spanish. Even though I spoke Spanish with my family and friends in Chicago, I had lost what little Spanish I had and I never improved my Spanish vocabulary by constantly speaking Spanish with Mexicans from Mexico. Well, some of the children made fun of how I spoke Spanish and called me gringo.

Well, one day, I noticed that my aunt had various copies of Life Magazine in her house. I immediately recognized the Life logo, white letters in a red block. I was so excited because now I would be able to read something in English! But upon picking up the magazine and flipping through the pages, I realized that the magazine was published in Spanish. One of my cousins asked me what I was reading and I told him, “Life,” but I pronounced “Life” in English. He asked me to repeat it, and when I did, he said that I didn’t know Spanish because I didn’t call the magazine, “Li-fe,” pronounced in Spanish as two syllables. I explained that “Life” is an English word and so I pronounced it in proper English as a one-syllable word, with a silent e. Of course, he didn’t believe me. I was still el gringo who couldn’t speak Spanish. Not only that! I also couldn’t speak English! He called my other cousins over and told them about  how I had my own peculiar way of pronouncing “Li-fe.” Well, after that, they constantly quizzed me about the pronounciation of “Li-fe.” Remember, “Life” in Mexico is “LI-FE” with two syllables!!

Escucha mi grito

A friend asked me if I went to the Mexican Independence Day parade today. I had forgotten all about the parade. Of course, then he asked me, “What kind of Mexican are you?” Actually, I’m American, I told him. Which made me wonder. I guess I’m not very Mexican, but I speak fluent Spanish. But so do a lot of people who aren’t even Hispanic. Am I proud of my Mexican heritage? I’m not sure! Makes me want to scream!!! When I’m in Mexico, everyone thinks I’m American. In the U.S., people think I’m American most of the time. I’m light skinned and I’ve managed to assimilate, even though some strangers immediately speak Spanish to me. I really don’t keep track of the Hispanic holidays. Usually, it’s some American non-Hispanic friend who has to remind me of the Mexican holidays. ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!

¡Escucha mi grito!

Mexican Catholics

Mount Carmel Church, Chicago, Illinois

The Mexican stereotype is that all Mexicans are Catholics. And most of them are. However, when I met my ex-wife’s family, I was surprised, even shocked, that most of her father’s family were Mexican Protestants. And her family was Protestant in Mexico, too! Talk about culture shock. Even though I’m a Mexican Catholic, I, too, stereotype all Mexicans in Mexico as Catholics.

As a young boy I was a parishioner at a Lithuanian Catholic church, Holy Cross, where I also attended their grammar school. The church population consisted of mostly Lithuanians, but there were also a lot of Mexican families in the parish and school. We always went to mass on school days before we went to class and on Sundays we sat with our classmates and teacher for mass. All the Mexicans in the neighborhood went to mass, if not every day, at least on Sundays. My father’s family was extremely religious, so I had this image of all Mexicans being devout Catholics.

When I went to Mexico, I realized that my mother’s family wasn’t as religious as I had imagined. All of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members always said that they were Catholic. What a disgrace it would be not to be Catholic!

Anyway, once I went to Mexico to visit for a month. By the third week, I realized that we had not even gone to church even once. I wasn’t really a practicing Catholic then, but I was worried about what my family would think of me if I didn’t go to church or even suggest going to church. So I asked them if they ever went church. Immediately, my aunt told everyone to dress up nice. We were going to church! Well, we went to church and there was no one there. There were no masses scheduled for that day, on a Sunday no less. We sat in the pews for a while attempting to pray, or at least pretending to pray, and then we went home.

So now that’s how I remember Mexican Catholics. People who want everyone to think that they’re Catholic. And, I guess, I’m no exception, either. Whenever someone asks me my religion, I say, “I’m Catholic!”

Doctor Tato

Danny, David, Dicky, and Tato.

When we were little, my father took us to the Shedd Aquarium not only because it was an educational trip, but also because it was economical. In fact, there was no admission charge back then. We spent the whole day there and saw every fish, shark, eel, turtle, and every form of sea life that was on display at that aquarium. I liked the transparent fish, while my brothers like the fish that glowed in the dark. What my father liked the most were the tadpoles. Tadpoles! Well, in Spanish, tadpole is el sapo. Just hold that thought for a while. El sapo. I’ll get back to it.

But first I have to explain about how my parents named theirs sons, meaning my brothers and me. When I was born my father wanted me to be named Diego after him. My parents always told me conflicting versions of this naming process. But my guess is that neither version is true. My mother did not want her firstborn son to be named Diego. Especially since my father’s name was also Diego. Let’s not get into the psychoanalysis of my mother just yet. We’ll save that for another day. Anyway, the best my father could negotiate in the naming rights was for me to be named David Diego Rodríguez. At least, I had his firstborn son had his name in there somewhere. Brother number two was born and he was named Daniel Rodríguez. WITH NO MIDDLE NAME! I never received any conflicting stories about this naming ritual between my parents, but I attribute it to the fact that we were much poorer by the time Daniel was born and my parents couldn’t afford to give him a middle name. Then brother number three was born and he was named Diego! No explanation is necessary! Right? My father had finally won an argument in the great Naming of the Sons debate. My third brother was named Diego Gerardo Rodríguez. From that day forward, Diego was my father’s favorite son! And my father was not discreet about showing his favoritism towards my brother Diego.

Well, going back to the Shedd Aquarium, when my father saw the tadpoles, he turned his head and said, “El sapo.” But he was now looking at my brother Diego. “Diego is my sapo!” From that day on, my father called him, “mi sapo, mi sapito,” etcetera. Everyone started calling him Sapo, even his friends. The only one who didn’t call him Sapo was my youngest brother Dicky. (How did he get that name? That’s a long story for another day!) He couldn’t say Sapo, no matter how hard he tried. His four-year-old mouth twisted and contorted whenever he attempted to pronounce Sapo. But all he could utter was Tato. We thought it was so funny that we started calling my brother Diego, Tato. After a while even my father called him Tato. Everyone loved this new nickname except Tato, but the nickname stuck. We didn’t know of anyone else in the neighborhood or Mexico who was also called Tato.

Tato was unique! Until one day, my brothers and I heard the song “Coconut” on the radio. The song where “she put the lime in the coconut, she drank ’em both up.” Well, toward the end of the song, the words to chorus, “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take, I said / Doctor, to relieve this bellyache,” are slurred slighty by the singer so that Doctor sounds like Tato. You can clearly hear the singer sing, “I said, Tato” several times! My brother was world-famous in our neighborhood!!! We would often tell my brother as if we were singing the song, “I said, Tato, is there nothing I can take?” This was certainly much closer to his name than the Fred Astaire song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in which he sings, “You say tomato, I say tomahto / You eat potato, I eat potahto.” Tato was in the Astaire song only if you forced it out, but in “Put the Lime in the Coconut,” Tato is definitely there, loud and clear. It was a proud moment for our family, but especially for my brother Tato.

I said Tato! Is there nothing I could take?