Sometimes we read Spanish texts in Spanish class. Often, the historical time period is referred to as siglo XX, pronounced siglo veinte in Spanish, which means twentieth century. Usually, they read, “siglo dos equis.” Some students actually think the text is referring to Dos Equis the Mexican beer! Thus, I learn about their weekend extra-curricular activities. Rarely do the students read the phrase correctly. Maybe I’m too literal when I read a text, but I never even thought of Dos Equis beer whenever I saw siglo XX. I really read it as the Roman numeral 20. And I love beer!
Anyway, this got me to thinking about Dos Equis beer a lot. But I managed to refrain myself from drinking any. And now they have a Dos Equis commercial that they play during the Ten O’Clock News that always makes me laugh. They show an obviously macho machísimo man who I like to think is obviously Mexican. They show him walking into a pool hall, surfing under a huge wave, and surrounded, of course, by several señoritas, implying that he’s a lady’s man. Then the narrator says: “He’s been known to cure narcolepsy just by walking into a room. His donor donation card also lists his beard. He’s a lover not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter so don’t get any ideas. He is … the World’s Most Interesting Man.”
Then this macho machísimo man says with a thick, yet virulent, Mexican accent, “I rarely drink beer. But when I do, I drink Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friends.” I mean this guy makes being Mexican look cool! Some of my Spanish students mentioned this commercial to me because they also thought this guy was really cool. I can only hope to someday be half as cool as his beard!
I am bilingual. I know Spanish and English. I like to think that I speak, read, and write two languages very, very fluently. However, I always have the vague feeling that I don’t communicate like a native speaker in either language. Sometimes people tell me that I speak English with an accent, which I don’t doubt at all.
As I was driving through to Mexico to visit my family, I had no trouble communicating with anyone. Except at the border where I applied for an auto permit to drive in Mexico. The clerk asked me something that I didn’t understand. She repeated it three times, but I understood everything she said, except for one word. She asked if I drove a Pontiac. But she pronounced Pontiac in Spanish and I didn’t recognize it. Finally, her colleague pronounced Pontiac in English and I understood. This taught me that I had to adjust my way of listening since I would be listening to different dialects.
Once I reached Celaya, I had no trouble communicating with anyone. I met my family and we understood each other perfectly. Ditto for my relatives in Mexico City. They mentioned other family members who had come from the U.S. who spoke no Spanish at all. However, a few relatives discreetly mentioned my accent, of which I have always been painfully aware. I wanted to buy some Mexican T-shirts for my sons at the mercado and my cousin told me to be quiet and she would do the haggling. If they heard me speak, they would think I was tourist and we wouldn’t get a good price. On the one hand, I had an American accent, but on the other, several people mentioned that I spoke Spanish extremely well. Well, that’s me to a tee. I abound in paradoxes. I speak Spanish with an accent, but very well. A few people mentioned that I stuttered through plenty of conversations while speaking Spanish. I pointed out that I stutter in English, too. But I was very happy that I could communicate in Spanish in Mexico!
Accents are a funny thing. An accent separates or distinguishes you from another person or group when you speak. For as long as I can remember, I have always had an accent. In kindergarten, I spoke broken English since I only spoke Spanish at home. So I had a Mexican accent. But when I went to Mexico, I had a gringo accent when I spoke Spanish. Then, I met my friend Patrick McDonnell in the second grade and I spoke with a little bit of an Irish brogue. Since I attended a Lithuanian Catholic grade school, I picked up a few Lithuanian words. In high school, classmates made fun of the way I talked, so I only talked when absolutely necessary. I remember reading books aloud to practice on my pronunciation. I was trying to eliminate any trace of an accent. Unsuccessfully, I might add.
When I enlisted in the Marines, I met people from all over the United States for the first time in my life. It was the first time someone told me that I had a Chicago accent. I was surprised when I met someone new and he said he knew I was from Chicago because I had no accent. My accent adapted unconsciously so would fit in. And I did fit in. During my enlistment, I had spoken with the accents of Brooklyn, Texas, Queens, Boston, Virginia, Oklahoma, and California. But I didn’t do this on purpose. I just somehow blended in with everyone around me.
When I began teaching Spanish, I also unconsciously adapted the accent of the people around me. So depending with whom I spoke, I would speak like them. I’m not sure what my true original voice sounds like anymore. A colleague once said, “I was trying to figure out what dialect you were. Now I know you’re Mexican because you said, “Mande.”
I suppose if I listen to myself carefully, I hear all these different accents in my voice in different places.