A tale of two Hispanics
by Lynnette Ramirez
My dad, Raul Gomez Ramirez, once said to me, “Mija, you can bring a bull to water but you can’t make him swim.” I was already in my twenties when this happened and had become accustomed to my father’s second language being English. He’s what in grade school the bullies on the playground would call out as an ESL student, as a way to make fun of the kids that were being mainstreamed while still learning English. ESL didn’t have a nice connotation in my public elementary school. It represented to many, including exasperated teachers, that you were less than and a burden because you didn’t speak English. I remember this embarrassed me even though I wasn’t an ESL student; in fact I was far from it.
While I was half-Mexican, born in the United States and being raised in an English dominate home, I knew those kids, regardless if their native language was Spanish, Chinese, Armenian, Arabic, etc., like my dad. Except my father not coming to the United States until he was 18, and receiving no formal education here was and still is kind of a lifelong ESL student.
My brother, Paul, on the other hand doesn’t like to correct our father the way I do. He doesn’t say, “Dad, what you mean is you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. That’s how you say that in English. Not nadar, tomar!” Paul finds humor in my father’s mixed up idioms, like the one you can tie a donkey to a tree and he won’t get lost. I still don’t even know what that’s about, or what’s he’s trying to say or translate from Spanish into English. I mean obviously he won’t get lost if you tie the poor animal to a tree, right?
Since neither my brother or I are fluent in Spanish, we can’t have weighty life conversations in my father’s native tongue, where perhaps the wisdom he’s trying to impart on us would make more sense. I share these experiences because my brother and I are both children of an immigrant, carry a Latin surname and are classified in America as Hispanic. Yet our life experiences, even those shared, are still very unique to our own individual journeys.
My brother lives in Seattle and on any given day having a last name like Ramirez can be exotic and apparently confusing too since my brother looks sort of like Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day. He once was in a class when a fellow student while scanning the group roster asked my brother, “I wonder whose group the Mexican will be in?” Needless to say the student was surprised when my brother ended up in his group and introduced himself as Paul Ramirez, the Mexican.
I comparatively have an olive complexion, live in Los Angeles and currently work for a television network focused on English language content told through a Latino lens. People generally guess I might be “one” of the “fellow” Mexicans or at least Latinos in the group, despite my valley girl accent.
Ironically not my father but my mother always stressed to me growing up, all Americans immigrated here at some point as that’s what America is all about — a melting pot. She explained all our ancestors have come from somewhere else, unless you’re a Native American. Needless to say I loved learning about the Indians and in the third grade vividly remember wanting to be Native American. I even dressed up as an Indian girl that year for Halloween and was hoping acorn soup would be served at our Thanksgiving table.
Looking back I wanted this because my eight-year old brain wanted to be what I thought was “more American” than I already was. It was the 1980s, Reagan was President and my teachers always had red, white and blue themes in our classrooms. The space program was in full effect and the Olympics were in Los Angeles. I viewed the truly American kids as the ones that didn’t have parents with foreign accents. What did I know? I was just a kid being influenced by the middle class community I lived in.
From September 15th to October 15th, it’s National Hispanic Heritage Month. I was surprised to learn that President Lyndon Johnson initially started the observation back in 1968, ironically shortly after my own father’s family immigrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico. In 1988, four years after I remember kids (mostly Latino) being made fun on the playground as new immigrates because they were asking for the “jello” crayon instead of the “yellow” one, President Reagan expanded it to cover a 30-day period.
Now another 25 years later, the United States is still welcoming immigrates and the numbers are still highest from Latin America. I suppose Hispanic Heritage observation was enacted to raise awareness for all Hispanics living in America — those like me, a second-generation; those like my brother’s expected son in March that will be third-generation; those like some of my colleagues and friends that are still learning American idioms; those like my father that will never fully grasp those idioms, and even those like my grandparents that don’t speak English.
I have no idea how Hispanic Heritage month is best highlighted in the mainstream. If I didn’t work at NuvoTV, I’m not sure I would even know it existed, yet I’m very aware of Black History Month. So, to me it’s just another month that I can continue to celebrate being me. I am as proud of my heritage as I am of my nationality. Luckily, I also don’t feel like I need to be a Native American anymore. I’m perfectly happy being counted as Hispanic in America.Tags: Hispanic-American, Hollywood, Lynnette Ramirez, National Hispanic Heritage Month, NuvoTV