Customer: What part of Mexico are you from.
Me: Southern California.
Me: Kinda. It's complicated. I was born here, but at the age of 4 I was raised in Mexico, until the age of 12.
Customer: Wow. Your english is so good.
This is more or less what these conversations sound like. A few nights ago, I was helping out at De Noche (one of our restaurants). I had just given a Guest an entire dissertation on the complexity of Mole and how little of it is truly made from ancestral components. In other words, I came over to drop off a dish, I explained what the dish was, they had a follow up question, and then I just talked and talked and talked…
But they liked it, so they asked what part of Mexico I was from and praised me on how good my English was. As soon as they said that I began to throw on more of that Antonio Banderas accent, just to make them rethink the comment.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, I don’t really see it as a bad thing. I am not offended with someone asking what part of Mexico I am from. I usually respond with something smart-ass like Tegucigalpa, or Managua, or in this case, the truth Southern California. I always think of these questions as a bridge to a greater conversation in which I get to share more and more insight with someone who has genuine interest in our culture. But I do struggle with the balance of what to share, or better yet, where to start when I am answering the question: “How did you learn to speak english?”
I was born in this country. At the age of 4, my parents moved back to their native country of Mexico. I was raised in Guadalajara, we lived in the small town of Tlaquepaque until the age of 9. My father was an athlete. He played sports for a living, it's complicated. But because of that I grew up loving sports, especially soccer. As a kid I rooted for two teams, Club America and Real Madrid. One, because I am a contrarian and hated the local team, and the other because of Hugo Sanchez, a Mexican great who was at his prime, and arguably the best striker in Europe. At the age of 9, I was sent to live with my Grandmother in Tijuana. If you are not familiar with the geography of Mexico, Tijuana is a town neighboring the US border. This place was nothing like the small town of Tlaquepaque. Kids were a lot more street savvy, a lot more hip. American pop-culture was everywhere, and basketball was the preferred sport of most of the kids. I played a lot of basketball there, I almost liked playing it more than soccer, really.
In addition, I was introduced to new music, American music, more specifically Black music. My uncle, who lived just around the corner from my Grandmother's house, had stacks of tapes of Ottis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Temptations, James Brown, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas… I had never heard anything like it. It was beautiful, all of it. I still remember the first time I put on a Mary Wells cassette. I recall sitting next to the stereo as the first song came on, titled “The One Who Really Loves You”. I was in complete disbelief of how perfect that song was; her voice, the bass-line, the harmony, the simplicity of the drums, all of it. And the next song came on, “You Beat Me To The Punch”, similar but actually better. And then another, and another. I must have listened to that tape for 4 hours. It was magic to me.
It wasn’t the easiest time to grow up in Tijuana. Yet, somehow despite having a neighbor with deep ties to the Arellano cartel who would occasionally show up with dudes holding machine guns in the back of 4x4 trucks, it didn’t seem all that bad. I had all of these new people introducing me to all of this music; Motown, Rap, Pop… I became obsessed with basketball and American Football. All the kids loved Jordan, but I quickly fell in love with Magic Johnson and his LA Lakers. My grandfather was still around at the time. He was a white man, who had moved to Mexico in the 60s and had married my Grandmother and adopted her children; my mother and aunt. His story of how he ended up in Mexico is incredible, but I will save it for another time. He didn’t communicate much at the time, mostly because his hearing was gone and his health was in decline. My most vivid memories of him are two, both around sports, oddly enough both around the same team. I remember him watching a Football game on TV. I didn’t understand it and he wasn’t really one to explain. It was the Bills vs Rams, sometime in 1989. That day, the Bills won and he seemed happy. Every time after that when he was watching sports on TV, I made it a point to sit by him, it didn’t matter what was on, we just watched sports. A year later I still recall watching another Bills game with him, this time vs Raiders. I still didn’t understand all of the rules but I at least understood the concept, that's all I cared about. I remember that game more specifically because halfway through it I was told that I had to pack my belongings and hitch a ride to Santa Ana (CA), where I was to go and join my father in the US. I didn’t get the chance to say bye to any of my friends, not even some of my family who lived on that same block. I do however remember that this was one of the only times my grandfather had shown any kind of affection towards me. He pulled out a $20 bill out of his wallet, hugged me goodbye, and told me to take care of my mother for him.This would be the last time I spent time with him. A year later he passed away. My grandmother, who had raised me for almost 3 years at that point, said something like “stay out of trouble” and packed two tortas for the road ahead… mind you the place I was supposed to go to was only 2 hours away. My family will say just about everything to each other except the phrase “I love you”. We are talking about generations of generations of thinking it but never actually saying it.
Anyway, none of it made any sense but I jumped in the car and figured I would probably be back in a few days. No one really explained in detail what was going to happen because no one knew if I was going to find my Father, or if we were going to have a place to live. It was all very rushed, but at least I was coming back to my home country to be with my family, whatever that meant. That night we drove around looking for the address that we had for him but had no luck finding him. And so, my cousin and I slept in the car, outside of a 7-11, in Santa Ana, California. I recall that sometime in the middle of the night, he was asked to move, so he drove a few blocks down and ended up in the parking lot of what was then The Orange County Register (newspaper). The next morning we tracked down an old friend of our family and told us where we could find him. My Father was out of money and living in a van, moving from place to place. I hadn’t seen him for some time. He didn’t have a job or much money, I know this because I was the one that treated him to dinner that night. A few days later my mother and my brothers arrived. We spent almost 2 months living in that van, moving around a lot so that no one got too familiar with our “whereabouts”.
We had a routine, at around 6am my parents would drive over to a Del Taco (restaurant) that had outdoor bathrooms for the cost of 25 cents. My mother was the first one in, she first made sure the bathrooms were clean. She then came back to the van, where she would boil water and place it in a bucket. My father would follow with a 5 gallon jug, a second bucket, and make a mixture of the two, to have enough water for all of us. With a plastic tupperware container we would all take some of that hot water, and washed up to get ready for the day. We were in and out of there in about 10 minutes.
During the daytime we would head over to whatever local park was nearby. My brothers and I would walk around picking up empty bottles and cans, which in return would take to recycle. We would make upwards of 3-4 dollars a day. This of course, not counting the “pity” dollars we would get from people who would see us working for those cans. Sometimes my brothers who were no older than 4 years old, would stand around and wait for someone to finish their soda or beers. People would feel so bad that they would just hand them over a buck. One time we even got a $20 bill from one of the local drug dealers and treated ourselves to 3 happy meals and two combos for our parents, from McDonalds. As you can imagine, our parents were not very happy. They hated when we took money from others, so we stopped telling them when we did.
Eventually, my father found a job in a town called Montclair, about 30 minutes from Santa Ana. Because of his new job we were able to qualify for an apartment, a family of 5 living in one bedroom apartment, in the Vietnamese projects. We lived there for about 3 months before eventually moving closer to his job. Man… those projects were rough, and as much as I want to talk about it, I think I will just suppress that memory for as long as I can. When we moved to Montclair, where there were mostly white kids and 2-3 generation Mexican-Americans, not very many who spoke Spanish. It was also the start of the Gulf War and everyone was feeling tense and patriotic. One day, a guy from the cable company was trying to install cable for someone on the second floor of our apartment building. The roof wasn’t easy to get up to, yet somehow I would always find a way to climb up there, so when he couldn’t make it up on his ladder, I volunteered to climb up and help him with the install in exchange for cable for our apartment, which happened to be next door.
The cable man, who happened to speak spanish told me I was “loco”, but when he couldn’t get his big ass up that roof he agreed to the deal. And so just like that I learned the basics of installing cable. I climbed up above and began to do everything that he instructed me to do from down on the ground. I opened the masterbox, connected one 3 ft. cable from the main box and onto a splitter. I screwed the splitter to the side of the box, plugged two chords to that splitter, and began to run both chords down the rooftop, onto the side of the building and into the corresponding apartments. 30 minutes later, I had cable tv.
What can I say, one day you are homeless living in a van, the next day you are watching the Gulf War being televised live on CNN. These were interesting times.
MTV, ESPN, BET, TNT, TBS, Nickelodeon… What a life!
And this my friends, is how I learned to speak English.