So at lunchtime, I wandered into a Mexican food restaurant Downtown that I’d never eaten at before. I had planned to go to the glitzy, renovated place across from the bank tower where I usually eat, but I meandered back a few blocks and picked a place surrounded by some shuttered businesses instead. Inside were nothing but a pair of young bankers, a bunch of old viejitas that reminded me of my grandma, and a TV silently broadcasting what might have been Veredicto Final.
I walked into the bright yellow dining area before retreating back into the lobby, unsure if I was supposed to seat myself. I stood around, craning my neck like an idiot, before a young waiter saw me. I had a deer in the headlights moment before he finally spoke up.
¿Le puedo ayudar, señor? He asked. Can I help you, sir?
Growing up, no one ever addressed me in Spanish because no one ever thought I would understand. I was so white as a kid that when my mom took me to K-Mart to get my picture taken as a baby in the late 80s, the photographer mistook her for my nanny. And as much as my mom was a Chicana activist Aztec warrior-queen from Aztlan back in the day, her half-white sons got American names, and she never taught us Spanish. I always remember how uncomfortable I used to feel listening to people grope for words in English while I stood by helpless to respond back. I could usually understand what they were saying, but I never formally learned Spanish, and I was always freaked out that people would make fun of me for saying something wrong. So I never said anything.
I picked Spanish up quickly in college, mostly because I knew a lot more than I thought I did. I remember coming back to visit my grandfather in Socorro after graduating, and having him be surprised that one of my cousins and me sounded so articulate and educated when we spoke Spanish. When I worked briefly as a journalist, I’d freak people out by interviewing them in Spanish. As I get older, I’ve started looking a little more ethnically ambiguous than I did in that K-Mart picture. People in DC used to come up and ask me questions in Spanish. And my classmates started catching on that I was Mexican because I wore more gold jewelrey than most East Coast men.
But whereas I was Mexican out there, at home, I wasn’t. I once had a cousin who had trouble passing the Spanish exam to get into Border Patrol tell me I wasn’t really Mexican. I laughed at the irony. But now, here, in this restaurant, I was so happy to finally recognized for what I was, as belonging in the city where I was born and raised. And at that moment, my mind went blank. I forgot all my Spanish.