1st Place: Linguistics 101, Finding My Soul in Español

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A young girl stand at the fountain in La Villita during Día De Los Muertos 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A young girl stand at the fountain in La Villita during Día De Los Muertos. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Yvette Benavides’ short, nonfiction story came in first place for the “How I Found You” Valentines’s Day contest sponsored by The Rivard Report and Gemini Ink. Benavides has won a $100 gift card to Feast Restaurant. Click here to read more.

Growing up on the border in Laredo, Texas, I was immersed in the Spanish language. We had full access to Mexican stations on our black and white television with the antennae askew and wrapped in an amorphous ball of aluminum foil. In the kitchen where my mother cooked, or while my father worked in the yard, the AM radio played tinny cumbias, the constant overlay of static its off-tempo accompaniment. This was home.

English was for school. I wrote poetry and read voraciously. I never wavered from the goal of becoming an English teacher. I was born for it.  I also felt incomplete.

In university in Austin, I was the only Mexican American English major in my cohort.  I might spot a paisano in the cavernous auditoriums where I took biology or math. We blended in there, embryonic freshmen, developing, figuring out who we were.

A mix-up in my schedule that first semester landed me in a linguistics class. I didn’t even know what the course was about, but the professor, a youthful brunette who wore jeans and sneakers and smelled of clove cigarettes, told us to skip the honorific and call her Amy. She put us at ease.  Amy was from New York City, had lived in Jakarta, and was fluent in Indonesian. She taught us that linguistics is about describing, not the prescribing we do, say, when we correct grammar in an English class.  This linguistic precept was something new and fascinating.

One day in class, the lesson was code-switching, a term I’d never heard before in all of my seventeen years.  It means switching back and forth between two languages. Amy, with eyes smiling, said, “Yvette, I imagine you’ve done some code-switching, right?”

I offered an answer. I gave the example of being in the kitchen with my mother cooking the Sunday feast, a menu that included frijoles, arroz, salsa and tortillas. Juan Gabriel’s syrupy song stylings were ubiquitous there.  Our house in Laredo, a house my father built with tools for which I only knew the Spanish names, was the place where code-switching took place. Yes. All the students stared at me. Even the ones who always participated and seemed far more eloquent than I, looked at me and smiled with something like admiration on their faces. One girl wished aloud that she were bilingual.

The Spanish language doesn’t always enjoy the passionate attention some of us give to it. I love it as much as the memories of dancing with my mother in the kitchen while she sang along to a balada, playing escuelita with my siblings on summer mornings, piscando naranjas and working in the jardín with my abuelito or listening to my father read the lectura en la misa del domingo. I love it as much as “Solamente Una Vez,” the wedding song my husband dedicated to me.  I love it as much as the face of my child when I say “Te quiero mucho.”

Yvette Benavides teaches English composition and literature at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. 

*Featured/top photo: A young girl pauses for a photo during Día de los Muertos celebrations in San Antonio at La Villita, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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