Knowing Two Languages Is a Forked Road

I am the best English speaker in my family.

By Monica Torres

Chicana feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldúa said that for Latinos who have no other recourse but to create a new language —one neither español ni inglés— our bodies shapeshift, we grow a “forked tongue.”

I hear that snake’s rattle when men in suits talk to me as if my mother wasn’t there, telling me that they cannot understand her. A snake’s forked tongue gifts you with two different perspectives to create a more complete, three-dimensional whole. I see and hear things clearly through mine. My mother’s English is a lilting cadence of song, the easiest language I know, full of clear colors and unexpected metaphors. My own is Standardized and boring, a Grade-A product of the American education system.

All my years of fancy book learning have made me the best English speaker in my family, but I would happily forfeit my fluency in ski lodge capitalism and human boatshoes and forget the meaning of structured analyses if I could sound more like my mother.

She is the only person in my world who can switch between Spanish and English at a rapid clip of “did you put on desodorante” and “porque no me has llamado.” I can understand her judgment at any speed. With everyone else, Spanish sounds like a mouth full of cotton, at least to me. I’m muy Americana. I garble tenses, fuck up the accents, and reach for words that do not come. I love hearing my name in Spanish, but I’m afraid that if I use it and you ask harder questions, I won’t be able to follow through. I sign my name Monica, not Mónica.

Here’s a grammar lesson that’s taken me too long to learn: knowing the right words doesn’t mean shit if you don’t know how to say them. I have failed too many people with my agreeable silence. The unspoken truth is that we judge people narrowly by their accents and dress and skin just as much as what comes out of their mouths. That’s why nothing makes me swipe left faster than a man who mentions good grammar as a criteria. We wouldn’t be able to speak the same language. How could I tell him that when my mother tells me what “Rachel Maddox” said on TV today, it makes me homesick.

The last time I visited my mom in Florida, she waited until my last days to tell me about a request to help her. Over the last few weeks, she had spent hours translating and typing up letters in English to a company that had mismanaged her request, only for these painstakingly-worded complaints to go unanswered. Would I please figure out a way to get them to answer her? The letters were not in perfect Standardized English but they were full of clear actionable demands. Reading through them, I felt a hissing anger rise within me and tighten my throat. This was not the first time this has happened to her.

My mother read the look on my face for helplessness. It was that and more, a two-forked thing. All it took me was one stern phone call to resolve the issue that had been bothering her for weeks.

My father wanted to name me after my mother, but recognizing her new chosen world of Tropicana, my mother gifted me a name that would sound easier in English and Spanish. Muy Americana.

Then and now, this is how she reasoned her decision to name me, her request for my help: I know they will listen to her more than me. When she tells me this, it’s in a voice full of pride and more.