Few things give me more anxiety than going to the dentist. The moment I walk into the office, with the high-pitched whirrs of the drill piercing my ears, my primal instincts kick in to high gear, and I have to stop myself from bolting out the door. Even as I write this, I feel a knot form right under my ribs, as my stomach folds over on itself.
When I was fourteen, I was sitting in a chair in a new dentist’s office, leaned back, gripping the armrests so hard I could feel the blood drain from my fingers. I was trying not to think of the man sitting beside me with his hands knuckle deep in my mouth, grinding and grating the plaque off my teeth. With every scrape, I flinched just the slightest bit. I clamped my eyes shut, trying to give off the impression that I just wanted it all over as soon as possible, but as many dentists do, he insisted on trying to carry on a conversation. But instead of asking me about my weekend or who my favorite football team is, he said something I don’t expect.
“I bet you can’t roll your r’s,” he told me.
He said it so confidently, so matter-of-factly that I couldn’t help but open my eyes.
“Uh-huh,” I mumbled through his hands, and I forgot my fear for a moment. How could he possibly know?
“You’re tongue-tied,” he explained to me. He pulled out a mirror and lifted my tongue with his finger to show me. “Your tongue is more attached on the bottom of your mouth than most are, which is why you can’t stick out your tongue very far or roll your r’s.”
He didn’t know it, but this dentist had just changed my world. When I was learning to speak Spanish, I could never roll my r’s the way you were supposed to. I’d put my tongue up to the roof of my mouth and gently push air through my teeth, trying so desperately to achieve that seductive purr that makes Spanish so sexy.
But instead my tongue would deflate, making more of a tssss noise that sounded like air being let out of a tire.
For years, I’ve thought it was me. There had to be something wrong with me.
I was ashamed that for someone who was half-Mexican, I sounded like such a guera, a white girl.
I felt like—still feel like—an impostor.
In more than a decade of attempting to speak the language, I can think of a handful of times a perfectly rolled r would spool out of my mouth when I was speaking, my mouth tingling with the surprise of its own success. But usually those failed r’s fell flat, sounding more like a d than an r. I grew to dread speaking exercises in class or talking with anyone who would try to engage me in conversation. I hated the way Spanish sounded coming from my own mouth—even other syllables sounded wrong, with a tongue that could not handle their beautiful constructions properly. I was ashamed that for someone who was half-Mexican, I sounded like such a guera, a white girl.
I felt like—still feel like—an impostor.
The dentist continued to hack away at my teeth.
“If you want, we can take care of that for ya,” he said, “We can give you a little local anesthetic and snip it—” he made a motion like a pair of scissors with his fingers “—no problem.”
I let out a nervous laugh, didn’t commit one way or another. I considered it for a moment and thought of how this could change everything.
“Rinse and spit,” he said.
My father owns a bar with his brother and sister. They bought it over 30 years ago, with the money their father left them when he passed away. My grandfather, the person from whom I get my last name, was someone I never met, someone who died years before I was born. I don’t know much about him, have never even seen any pictures. The only credit he is given in the family folklore is as a womanizer; he had a child with another woman around the same time my father was born, a mysterious aunt or uncle whom I’ve also never met.
The Wooden Nickel Tavern lies in the heart of Tucson’s Barrio Centro neighborhood. Many of its customers are blue-collar workers, many speak Spanish themselves. They come in after a long day at work, ordering pitchers of Bud Light and playing a round of pool to unwind. They watch U of A basketball games on the big screen, praying for the day the Wildcats will bring the championship title back home. They move the tables to make a makeshift dance floor when somebody puts a salsa or cumbia rhythm on the jukebox.
Growing up, I mostly stayed behind the scenes. Whenever my father would bring me to the bar on an errand, he would have me sit on a cold stool in the kitchen while he took inventory. I like to think he was trying to protect me in his own way, knowing a bar wasn’t an appropriate place for a child. The rest of the building was mysterious to me, this thing that took up so much of my family’s time and yet I knew so little about. On those rare days when I did make it out of the back onto the bar floor, usually to sneak up to the bartender to ask for a Shirley Temple, many of the customers stopped me to say hello, already knowing my name and having seen the pictures my father carried in his wallet. On my way back to the kitchen, I’d hear other customers socializing over their bottles of Miller Lite. The regulars all knew one another, and their Spanish bounced so naturally off the dark wood panels, hovering in the dimly lit air like cigarette smoke. I witnessed so many varieties on the same language: different accents, different inflections, different slang.
I always wanted to know what they were saying.
My 100% Mexican, completely bilingual (partially trilingual in Portuguese) friend Val (short for Valeria) is trying to help me get a job, so I send her my resume.
Under “Special Skills” I list conversational Spanish. This is a bit of a stretch, since it has been seven years since I’ve taken a Spanish class, and I’m extremely out of practice. But I could fake it if I need to. Everyone lies (or at least embellishes) on their resume, right?
“I’m going to have to hear this conversational Spanish,” she teases me. I’ve heard her speak Spanish on several occasions. Val is the kind of person who always finds a way to make conversation with the people around her, no matter what the language. I’ve never spoken it in front of her, too embarrassed of what she might think. She proudly calls herself a Latina, and a Latina she is, with her bronzed skin and dark thick hair. It’s label I never use to describe myself. It just never quite feels right, with my pale complexion that only tans after hours and hours in the sun. Not only can I not speak fluent Spanish, I don’t even look the part.
“I understand it more than I speak it,” I tell her, which is true.
I began learning Spanish as a toddler, when my grandmother watched me while my parents were at work. She would teach me words and phrases in between watching her judge shows. We’d sit at her dining table while she sipped on a Coors, teaching me words like por favor and mesa—nothing too complicated. We never really got to sentences, or even verbs and their conjugations.
Maybe she didn’t want to teach me, not wanting to overstep her bounds. Or maybe she just didn’t know how. Both of her parents died when she was just eight years old, before her father could ever teach her to ride a bike or her mother could teach her how to put on makeup. By the time she was sixteen, she had dropped out of high school and gotten married to the man who was supposed to take care of her forever. Either way, whatever I learned faded away by the time I started taking Spanish in school.
In class, I was faced with one incompetent teacher after another. Most of my teachers in my five years of classes were long-term substitutes; more than once my school did not have a permanent teacher at the beginning of the school year. One of the subs claimed to have worked for the CIA in the past and could not be exposed to any perfume because he was highly allergic. Another sat at her desk reading from a magazine while we did writing exercises in the textbook.
The last year I took Spanish, as a junior in high school, I was teaching myself out of a classroom closet for independent study credit. I managed to get by from year to year, not because I was becoming more fluent, but because I had a knack for memorizing vocabulary and finding patterns, skills essential in verb conjugations. I could read Spanish fairly well since that was what I had practiced most, and I could understand when I was spoken to. But anytime I had to speak, I would freeze up, as if there were a disconnect between my brain and my mouth, millions of microscopic resistors along my neurons slowing down the current that would allow me to carry on a conversation.
Not only did I lack the opportunities to practice my speaking skills, I avoided the few that were available to me. Whenever my mother would ask me, “Como estas, mija?” I’d say, fine, in English, and she would make the transition with me. With a tongue that betrayed me every time I opened my mouth, I was embarrassed, too self-conscious of the way I sounded to want to try.
I had a job as a hostess in an Italian restaurant during my senior year of high school. Most of the dishwashers spoke only Spanish. One of the older ones took a liking to me, and we wound up working many shifts together. “Que bonita,” he’d say when he saw me, in the same way a loving uncle or grandfather might. He would ask me questions sometimes, and I would try to answer, embarrassed at how long it took me to formulate a single sentence, but finally I told him, “Lo siento, le puedo entender, pero no puedo hablar bien.” I’m sorry, I can understand you, but I cannot speak well. This became my mantra for anyone who tried to converse with me in Spanish, an excuse, a crutch I hid behind. And it worked.
Maybe I should take it off my resume after all.
My father does not speak Spanish. At least not fluently. I don’t know if it is because he refuses to or if he doesn’t know how. He is the baby of the family. Perhaps my grandmother gave up trying to raise kids that could speak her native tongue. She never married again, never really even dated for all I know. Instead, she watched men from afar, from the comfort of her living room recliner, on shows like Maury, calling them out for the cheating Mexicans she knew they were.
In this way, I think of my father, subliminally encouraged to forget most of where he came from. I’ve really only heard him speak Spanish a handful of times, and when he does, it’s clunky, like me. He does know all of the swear words. But even then, he uses incorrect conjugations and slang that I’ve never heard from anyone else.
My mother speaks better Spanish and she is Caucasian, forced to learn it for her job as a school nurse in a school district with an almost ninety percent Hispanic student population. She was the one who would try to get me to speak at home, try to help me practice. She never spoke Spanish to my father, though. She didn’t speak much English to him either though, especially not after the divorce.
My father, on the other hand, could learn it for his job but doesn’t. He could sit down with the customers, who are really not customers at all and more like extended family. He could talk with them in their own language, ask them about their kids, about their jobs, about their dreams. But instead, he speaks to them in English. Most nights, he hides away in the kitchen sneaking sips of tequila while he fries chicken wings and flips hamburgers. He waits until closing to come out, when the seats are empty, to mop the floors and restock the liquor.
As I got older, the Wooden Nickel became another one of my babysitters as I spent less time with my grandmother. I was allowed to come out of the back kitchen more and more while my father checked on things throughout the day, restocking and reordering. My father would give me a stack of quarters to play pinball in the back corner or solitaire on the touch-screen game console at the end of the bar. The regulars would still stop me, giving me hugs that smelled like Marlboro Lights and Jack Daniels. They would ask about school, and when I’d tell them about making the honor roll, they’d say, “Muy bien, mija.”
“Thank you,” I’d say.
After a bit of Internet research, I’ve found that the surname Varela appears to come from Galicia, a nationality on the northwestern most tip of Spain. There is a very good possibility that the name will die out in my family in my generation: my brother and I are the only ones left in the family who carry it.
I have no idea how or when my ancestors migrated from Europe, what their reasons were for making their way west, or if they even ended up in the United States legally. And no way to find out. No one to ask.
In 2010, my grandmother forgot to fill out her census. Or perhaps she purposely didn’t send the survey back, her way of telling the government to mind their own damn business.
There was a knock at her door one day. My brother went to open it, innocently thinking it may have been the mailman, but standing there was a Census Bureau employee, asking for the head of the household. My brother went to get her and my grandmother cursed, upset at this intrusion on her privacy. She came to the door in her housecoat, leaning against the doorframe to take the pressure off of her arthritic knees.
The man was perfectly polite, a little too enthusiastic even. He asked for her information, and my grandmother answered, reluctantly. She did not attempt to hide her annoyance, sighing loudly and giving him short answers.
He then asked, “Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”
“I am an American,” she said and slammed the door in his face. She went back to the kitchen and opened a bottle of Coors.
My brother and I sat on the couch staring at one another. It probably occurred to one of us to go after the man, to apologize and explain. But instead we were silent. My grandmother turned up the volume on the television, the shouts of Judge Judy echoing down the hall.
Most of the foods I grew up with weren’t even really Mexican. They were really only particular to my family.
Which is just as well, because I don’t have a particularly spicy palate; my sensitive stomach makes it difficult to enjoy many of the foods that are associated with Mexican cuisine—hot sauce isn’t a staple I keep in my kitchen pantry. I’m allergic to avocados, so I can’t even eat guacamole, one of the most mainstream Mexican foods available.
But as a child, there were a handful of meals I grew up thinking were Mexican. For breakfast, my grandmother made fried corn tortillas and eggs. She’d slice the tortillas into small, bite-sized pieces with her crooked fingers, taking care not to burn herself in the hot oil. Sitting with me at the table while I ate, she’d hold her two pointer fingers up, side by side, showing me how they’d bow out away from each other. “I’m getting so old,” she’d say.
On days that I stayed with her home sick from school, she made papitas and hamburger, which was more or less our version of hamburger helper, but simpler. While she cooked, I lied on the couch sneaking in segments of The Price is Right when her judge shows were on commercials. The ground beef and potatoes, served with a little bit of ketchup on the side, were a comfort food that made me feel better than any cough syrup or cold medicine.
On Friday nights, she made tacos, deep-fried in canola oil, or tostadas with Spanish rice (one of the few meals that was recognizably Mexican out of all the things she made). Her Spanish rice spoiled me, so much so that I would turn it down whenever I went out to eat. It was just so hearty, so flavorful; I could never find anything like it anywhere else.
But all these things were foods I could only eat with my grandmother—my father never made them for me at home.
Even when he went back to school for a degree in culinary management, my father didn’t make the things that were so familiar to me as a child. Instead, for breakfast, he would make pancakes, or fried eggs with golden hash browns, spending so much time grating the potatoes by hand. He insisted on perfecting his homemade spaghetti sauce, simmering fresh tomatoes on the stovetop for hours. He’d grill steaks and roast chicken, but never did he cook the same meals that he grew up with, the ones that barely tied us to anything resembling a Mexican culture.
When I moved to California, 800 miles from home, I had to call my grandmother to ask her how to make her Spanish rice. She walked me through it on the phone, told me all of the spices to add, the oregano, the basil, the garlic powder. I waited anxiously while it simmered in the pot, worried it wouldn’t be the same. But when I lifted the lid and the steam billowed into the air, it was just like sitting back at her kitchen table in the days she still used to teach me my tiny Spanish words, and I savored it.
More than a decade since that fateful dentist visit, and my tongue is still attached. I have seen other dentists since then, and they have commented on a number of other oral problems: my overbite, the fluoride stains on my teeth, my wisdom teeth that they encourage me to get removed. But none of them have ever mentioned my tongue. I haven’t brought it up either, mostly out of fear, but also because I realize it’s a superficial fix for something that stems deeper than my inability to speak Spanish perfectly.
As I wrote about these experiences, I tried to pin down what this essay was about, tried to sum it up in one word. I looked up words and their definitions—heritage, culture, identity, race, lineage—to search for structure, to give shape to this amorphous entity I can’t even name, to give weight to these feelings that are so engrained. Because perhaps by assigning more language to this thing that I’m attempting to explain, I can understand it or access it better. But I couldn’t even do that. It is not my Spanish that fails me, but language as a whole, my fingers another inadequate part of my body that neglect to express what I long to say.
This is an essay about heritage; this is an essay about culture; this is an essay about identity; and all of the intersections of the three. It is an essay about knowing and not knowing, the secrets and family legends that shape my history. It is about being and refusing to be. It is about offering and withholding, the things that are chosen to be told and the things that go unsaid. It is about the pieces of the puzzle and the gestalt, the way that one detail is inseparable from the entire mythology.
The connection to my Spanish heritage is complicated; most of the time it feels like hardly a connection at all, like roots that were too shallow and failed to take hold. I have wished I could look more Mexican, sound more Mexican, live and breathe more Mexican. If only it were as simple as going to the dentist and having minor oral surgery. Other times, I feel a strong sense of pride to the place, to the family I came from. I realize I am not alone, that my history is the history of so many others who have struggled to find where they belong. We stand here, alone together, waiting for the right words to say, with our pale skin and misshapen tongues.
Krista Varela received her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California, where she is now a lecturer. She is a 24 year old woman of color and is an assistant editor for The East Bay Review and occasionally writes for Booma: The Bookmapping Project. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Red Savina Review, and Sugared Water. She’s on Twitter @kdvarela84.