Recently I traveled to Peru to research my next novel.   Peru rattled me, although I am not a nervous traveler.   When I was thirteen, I made the trip from Manila to Boston, including a required overnight stay in Los Angeles, by myself.  There was hitchhiking in Italy in my college years and other bold and ridiculous travel adventures; once I landed in Ravenna with no money and had to work two days at a communist beer festival to make train fare back to Florence.  I drove through the Texas Panhandle in an ice storm and had to sleep in a church.  I’ve negotiated public transport in Bangkok, often alone, and somewhat confidently.  In recent years, I waited out officials at the Zimbabwe/Zambia border as they attempted to extort one hundred dollars—something I would have given them, but which I didn’t have since, as I explained to them several times, only a stupid woman would travel alone and with lots of cash. I didn’t sweat it.  I had time, and I survived through those moments composed and sustained by the notion that, at some juncture, this would make a funny story.  But Peru made me nervous not because of danger, nor lack of money, nor corruption, nor alien culture, but because of language.  Peru made me nervous because of Spanish.  Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it.  More clearly (not speaking Thai doesn’t bother me) Spanish makes me nervous because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should.  I call this particular anxiety “The Spanish Thing.”

I have never formally studied Spanish.  In preparation for my upcoming trip, I dug up some Spanish tapes from my basement.   I was proud of myself for managing to locate them and dusted them off and brought them to my study, where my cassette player had been waiting for such an occasion for several years.  The course of study is called Spanish In Three Months.   I remember purchasing this in 1993.  Clearly, more than three months had passed since I’d acquired the set—tapes and book—and looking at the difference between the months announced on the cracked, plastic cover, and the almost twenty years between its acquisition and the present, made me consider why I’d purchased it in the first place.  I’d been in graduate school, dating a Colombian guy, and really ought to have applied myself immediately since that relationship lasted exactly a summer.  A year later, a spring break trip to Mexico made me turn to the course three days before departure, but Spanish in three days was difficult to pull off.  As I held the box—six tapes and a book—a sentence wafted up from deep memory, “Tiene una pierna rota,” which translates as, “He/she has a broken leg.”   I flipped through the book and found the sentence on page 54.  Twenty years had passed, but Carlos’s leg was still broken, and I was quick to congratulate myself.  Unfortunately, the rest of the book was as fresh to me as a course in Hungarian.

I should explain that I’m not your average gringa.  My mother is Filipino, I have a functioning grasp of Tagalog, and I lived in The Philippines—arguably a Hispanic country— through my high school years.  Tagalog, an Austronesian language, is not Spanish and shares much vocabulary with Bahasa Malay—parts of the body, for example, share the same or similar words—but anything that the Spaniards introduced tends to be the same word (mesa is table in both Tagalog and Spanish) or similar (the Tagalog for onion is sibuyas, cebollas in Spanish).  Other words exist in both languages, but with different meanings.  Siguro in Tagalog means maybe, and its phonetic equivalent in Spanish—sichuro—means sureDepende – or that depends—means the same thing in both languages.  This is an obvious statement on the lack of certainty in Philippine culture, and on the lack of my certainty as I strive to populate my basic Spanish sentences with words.   Even my Tagalog has become, over time, sparsely populated.  It’s been twenty-five years since I’ve lived in the Philippines and I rarely use or hear Tagalog.  A trip to Manila five years ago surprised me with what I had retained.  I could listen in on my mother conversing with her sisters—chit-chat about food and servants and children—and, when needed, could make needs clear to people when my Tagalog was less awkward than their English.  There also exists hope that, as Tagalog speakers can sometimes get the gist of a Spanish sentence from the shared vocabulary, perhaps the same might work in reverse.  Once in Miami, when walking through South Beach with my friend Evelina Galang, she surprised me by responding in a sort of Spanalog to a man who’d called out to her.  “See, he understands,” she said.  He was smiling, but I think it was more the result of Evelina’s uncommon beauty than any comprehension of what she was saying.

I started driving around with some borrowed Pimsleur Level 3 CDs, actually, single CD, since I’d thrown the case onto the backseat—out of reach—and never remembered to switch before I was already in motion.  I drove around listening to this one CD for a week and learned to say, in Spanish, that I was married.  Was a diplomat.  Had gone to Arizona last summer to see the Grand Canyon. Had grown up in…and here I substituted “Australia” and “The Philippines” for the Washington DC supplied in the original dialogue.  I also substituted “professor” for “diplomat” and had every intention of working through the rest of the course when, with some surprise, I realized the date of my departure had arrived.  I diligently packed the book for Spanish in Three Months and hoped for the best.

My desire to speak Spanish is hardly remarkable, however my guilt at not knowing it is worth trying to explain.  As a child growing up in Manila, my mother had a Spanish tutor.  She remembers the maestra riding up on a horse to give lessons.  Why this woman was riding a horse, I’m not really sure.  There’s also the detail that one of the seven siblings—maybe my mother—used to hide under the table to avoid this same maestra and her gift of Spanish.  My mother is the fifth child, seven years old at the start of WWII.  This becomes significant because with the war, everything became interrupted—Spanish lessons, regular meals, life.  After the war was over, there was not only no more Spanish teacher, but Narding, the fourth child, was also dead, as was my mother’s father.  The older siblings, Ray and Pina, speak very good Spanish.  Ray, a Jesuit, spent some years assigned to the Bronx as a result of this, and Pina married a Spanish-speaking mestizo and for a time used her Spanish on a daily basis.  The eldest sibling, Joe, died a few years ago in San Antonio, Texas after living most his life in California.  He was the most Spanish looking of all the siblings, a romantic, and spoke not only Spanish and English, but also French.  My mother, her younger brother and younger sister, however, did not have the same command of Spanish as the older siblings. They grew up under the Americans with excellent English, but are still passionate about the flare and capacity of Tagalog to describe life and people and emotion.    This magpie attitude to language, and culture, comes from my mother’s eccentric ethnic mix, which is Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese, and Texan—her grandfather arrived in The Philippines during the Spanish American War—which might be German.   I, therefore, have Spanish ancestry, along with these others, and, thanks to my father, mostly Irish but with German and Scottish, some others too.  My resulting appearance is that I look like other people with similar ancestries, who mostly live in South America.

The Spanish/Chilean writer Elena Castedo once said to me, “We Spaniards consider Filipinos Spanish.  When you say, ‘I’m Filipino’ we say, ‘Oh, another Spaniard!’”  Whether or not this is true of all Spaniards, it is representative of Spain’s shared history with the Philippines.  Filipinos who have never been to Europe can look to Spain and feel a sense of belonging, the same sense that inspired some Australians, even in the 1970s, to refer to England as home.  Of course, there is a great number of Filipinos who would rap me on the head at this point and remind me of the Philippine Revolution, of our hero/writer Jose Rizal executed by the Spaniards, of how Spain’s successful colonization of The Philippines left the nation open to all kinds of subsequent occupations, including that of corrupt governments of our own making, like the Marcos’s.  And now I might counter that Jose Rizal was mestizo, as was Andres Bonifacio, the other high-profile Filipino revolutionary.  And this discussion could go on forever and would answer nothing, but rather present a fascinating bundle of questions, looped round with notions of identity and power and knowledge.  And I myself, a mestiza, behave in very predictable ways by being conflicted, articulate, and aware: I am conqueror and conquered simultaneously.  This gives me a curious perspective.

Also, contributing another perspectival dimension, I’ve spent my whole life as something of an outsider.   During my childhood in Australia—mostly happy—I was, at times, ostracized for being “American” and having a “Vietnamese” mother.  When I reached The Philippines, I was again ostracized, although I wasn’t sure of the specific reason because of the language barrier.  Later, when I picked up Tagalog, I was no longer ostracized and it occurs to me that my fatal social blemish might well have been the inability to speak the language of casual discourse.  In college in the U.S., I was an international student—hardly a victim’s status, but not the badge of belonging.  And by the time I left college, I had spent so many years being outside of every group I’d ever attached myself to that this comfortable dislocation was the only way I knew to exist.   It is therefore a novelty to have Spanish speakers—in the United States as well as in official Spanish-speaking countries—always assume a connection.  If you speak to me in Spanish, it feels like an invitation to something great that, unfortunately, I can’t accept.  It’s awkward and the thought of traveling to Peru—although I was sure Peruvians try Spanish on blonde-haired, blue-eyed people as well—made me uncharacteristically self-conscious.

The first leg of my trip was a flight to Lima and started in Boston.  At the check in, a young man put the baggage tag on my luggage, and, in Spanish, said something about my luggage (which I understood) something about something (which I didn’t) and—I think— wished me a good trip.   I felt dizzied, a little stupid, and, although I know I hadn’t done anything offensive, rude.  I began regretting all the years I’d wasted picking up Tarzan’s Italian and menu-proficient Greek.  I wondered why Filipinos speak Tagalog (should I be proud of this?) instead of the Spanish of their Hispanic brethren.  I wondered what I was, who I was, and why I was so committed to English—must I excel at everything I do?—and what the importance of commanding rather than communicating in a language was.  I thought of Spanish speakers living in the U.S., particularly Mexican people living in places like Texas, where the U.S. border shot south imprisoning them all forever in English.  I wanted to protest this (although the airline representative just wanted me to step aside and let the next person reach counter) and in Spanish!

I was already dealing with “the Spanish thing” and I hadn’t even left Massachusetts.

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SABINA MURRAY is the author of three novels and two short story collections, including the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Caprices and the contemporary gothic A Carnivore's Inquiry. Her work is included in The Norton Anthology. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute and is on the fiction faculty of the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She wrote the script for Beautiful Country, a Golden Bear contender, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Her latest, Tales of the New World, was recently published by Grove/Black Cat.

4 responses to “The Spanish Thing”

  1. […] “because I can’t speak it, and I look like I should,” author Sabina Murray wrote in The Nervous Breakdown blog. “If you speak to me in Spanish, it feels like an invitation to something great that, […]

  2. […] the original post here, which highlighted an essay from a half Filipina, half German-Irish writer who is consistently presumed to speak Spanish, but […]

  3. e2 says:

    Hon, if you identify as Gringa, you’re average.

  4. e2 says:

    “The depressing thing about this city is that the artists are even more bourgeois than the fucking bourgeoisie.” ~ Arthur Rimbaud

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