By Roberto Garcia on Monday, November 28th, 2016 at 9:02 am
—James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”
On a recent trip to the Canary Islands I was reminded that none of the languages I speak are native to me. The flight departed from JFK in New York City, would arrive at Madrid, Spain, and connect to a shorter flight that would ultimately land in Tenerife, Canary Islands. A few hours into the flight I asked the flight attendant for two whiskeys. I can never sleep on a plane and since this was a red-eye I figured a couple of drinks might help. I asked for the drinks in Spanish and his surprise was evident. His expression changed for an instant. Almost as if he questioned the reality of what was happening. A part of me can understand that, but another part of me can’t. Part of me thinks he should be used to Latinos by now. That his experience as a flight attendant dealing with countless passengers from across the Latino diaspora would have educated him on enough of our differences as to not be taken off guard by me. Then I got to thinking about language.
I’m American, but I don’t speak English because I’m from England and I’m a Latino that doesn’t speak Spanish because I’m from Spain. I speak these languages thanks to a long history of colonialism, to be more specific, the losing end of colonialism. The flight attendant who poured my whiskey is a Spaniard. Spanish has been his national language for centuries and his family’s language for generations. When he hears me, a mutt with African, Chinese, and Spanish blood (but who leans more towards the African), does he consider me a fraud? Does he see me as parroting Spanish? Now, this poor flight attendant is a fill in, of course, but you get the picture. What do most Spaniards think about the Spanish speakers in the colonies they lost all those years ago? Do they care? Why should I? Maybe it has something to do with the idea of “talking white.” That idiom applies to more than America’s English speaking socio-ethnic cultural constructions. In the Latino community “talking white” in Spanish is trying to sound like a Spaniard.
As a writer I think about language all the time. I’m also more self conscious about it because I tend to code switch in both English and Spanish. I speak city streets English and my natural Spanish accent is from Dominican Republic. Dominican Spanish is often the butt of many jokes due to its loudness, heavy inflection, and use of slang. Much like African American vernacular it plays with signifying and bends the rules of grammar at will. What a strange consequence, we the children of colonization, African diaspora, and the Casta system, are. Are we seeking acceptance every time we speak a language used as a way to oppress us: Spanish, English, or French? I can’t be sure the word I mean is acceptance. However, my exchange with the flight attendant demonstrates to me that I feel some type of way about it. I drink my whiskeys and think again that on many levels we use the language of our former oppressors to oppress each other and ourselves. Invariably the question arises: Had I looked European would I be writing this essay right now? Would my flight attendant have flinched? In my experience too many Latinos with European features lean on “talking white” in Spanish. They pass. Aren’t we invoking white supremacy / superiority when we try to master the master’s language?
Some Latinos participate in an unwritten competition for whose nation speaks the best Spanish. It’s typical “colonial mindset” shit, the belief that anything that comes from our colonizers is superior. South Americans criticize Caribbean and Central American Spanish. Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking Caribbean(s) view criticism from South Americans as elitist and rude. As we chase mastery of the master’s language the master looks at us as fools.
I should be thinking about island excursions and new cocktails. I should be worrying about how my kids will adapt to the weather, the food, and the cramped living quarters of the AirBnB we rented. Five of us will be cramped into a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment that allegedly has air conditioning. The place looked small in the pictures online, I’m scared to think about the reality of it. At home we’re spread out across three floors and there are two bathrooms. There’s also my propensity for striking up conversations with the locals. Sometimes this involves drinks and long hours of solving the world’s problems. I like to take leisurely walks up and down streets outside the tourist trap. This will be hard to do. My wife has planned the vacation from beginning to end.
The closer we got to Spain the more of a curiosity my family and I became to the people around us. In America, my wife and I are sometimes viewed as an interracial couple even though we’re both Latinos. People see my brown skin and her white skin and that’s all they see. We’ve been out in public and I’ve received disapproving looks from African American women, endured smirks from Castilian Latinos (colorism is prevalent in the Latino community) and “white” people. This kind of attention wasn’t new to me but on our trip it felt different, more intense, the farther we travelled. The Europeans I encountered were reluctant to break their stares. To them we might have belonged to any number of groups labeled “other,” groups troubling the European mind these tumultuous days. Perhaps the rainbow coalition that constitutes the Garcia family; my pale wife, my olive skinned oldest daughter, my high yellow son, my caramel skinned youngest, and me—the deep brown source, exacerbated their fears: that soon, the entire human race would be a smorgasbord of complexions and nations. And by extension, that the idea of “whiteness” would be no more. I felt no guilt returning their stares with menacing dirty looks, and I feel none now as I look back on it.
The staring, the leering, and the menace I felt could also be a result of Europe’s rising right wing fascism. All across Europe racist right wing extremist groups have infiltrated government and created political parties. England (UK Independence Party), Sweden (Sweden Democrats), Finland (Finns Party), the Netherlands (Party for Freedom), Belgium (Vlaams Belang), France (National Front), Germany (AfD Alternative for Germany), and Italy (Liga Norde) have all seen extreme right wing political groups surge in the polls. The new aim of racism in the west is to normalize white supremacy as a political ideal and disguise what it really is, a dangerous and violent form of ignorance. America has also caught the virus and elected Donald Trump president. Trump’s most vocal support comes from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.
Too many Europeans and their American descendants (“white” people) suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. In moments of crisis or uncertainty, too many of them revert back to their oppressive roots, their oppressive history, and proceed to hate everyone. Racism, fear, anger, guilt, and shame appear to be trapped inside them, and they are trapped inside its history, their history. Extremist leaders know this and carefully craft propaganda to rile people up, and “whites” fall right into the trap.
This trap works both ways. As the oppressed in this relationship we have our traditional responses, our protest, our songs, our stories, our actions. Often, we respond with a kind of predictability. We are outside the western philosophical construction because we know capitalism is not democracy, and democracy is not necessarily freedom. Not all of us fully accept it and yet have limited ways to respond to it, our response is predicated on western systems of power because that is all westerners understand, and because of their propensity for violence. We are also fighting against the racial imaginary, that house of horrors that prevents us from being truly seen by many “whites.” And still, by the time a new right wing regime rises, our story has been lost and must be told again. What we are left to question is how much “white” people believe in their own rhetoric of liberty and freedom.
When we arrived at Tenerife South Airport we were tired and cranky. The entire trip had taken twelve hours and most of it on a cramped plane. I was eager to see the AirBnB, to shower, and change into fresh clothes. After picking up our luggage we were questioned by customs. For the first few minutes the officer struggled to ask me questions in English, even though I addressed him in Spanish. Either he didn’t want to believe I spoke Spanish, or he desperately wanted to practice his English. I’ve had this happen to me in the states. I’ll walk into a Latino place of business and the proprietor struggles to speak to me in English after I’ve clearly demonstrated that I speak Spanish fluently. Sometimes the eyes, the mind and the mouth refuse to acknowledge what the ears are telling them.
I had high hopes that our cab driver would give us some good reconnaissance on Tenerife. I’m very fond of cab drivers, but we must’ve picked the worst cabbie in the world. This guy was rude. This dude actually huffed and puffed a few times on the ride to the apartment. When I asked him about the sunburnt landscape he ignored me. I wondered at my Spanish. Was I speaking it correctly? Should I have used a different word for landscape? Then it hit me. Maybe he wasn’t Spanish speaking. I checked his tag and sure enough his name was Spanish. I gave him a good long stare. A few moments later I felt my wife kick the back of my seat, so I canned the small talk. We arrived at a taxi stop across the street from a small church square. The cab driver couldn’t pinpoint the exact address of our final destination. He simply motioned us to walk up a hill. Thankfully, we found our temporary home, and spent the majority of our time in Tenerife on the beach.
Tenerife is like most cities, full of people from all over the world. I saw countless West African men selling watches, wallets, sunglasses, and large cotton blankets. There were West African women too; toting babies in back slings, offering to braid tourists’ hair late into the night. There were Iraqi, Algerian, Cuban, and Brazilian restaurant and gift shop owners. I walked into a bookstore owned by a German woman who’s lived on Tenerife for eighteen years. More than once I was invited to move to the tiny island, “We need an American. We don’t have any here,” I was told. These days the offer is very tempting.
The highlight of our stay was a trip to Playa Las Arenas, a black sand beach. Our cab driver, Felipe, was salty and ready to tell us everything about Tenerife. I immediately inquired after Guanches, the people indigenous to the Canary Islands. Felipe explained that unfortunately, they died out long ago, and that Guanches today referred to people who’ve lived on Tenerife for several generations. He was born and raised on Tenerife and remembers a time before tourism when the island was nintey percent plantain plantations. Felipe’s whole family worked on plantations until a shift in economics made tourism the island’s primary source of income. While he is somewhat nostalgic for the old days he appreciates not being beholden to Spanish landowners.
Felipe informed us that Guanches detest Peninsulares, or Spanish mainlanders. He said they are petulant, arrogant, and rude. He’d observed Peninsulares who’d come to live on Tenerife give tourists wrong directions, treat them badly, and ignore them. I immediately thought of our first cab driver. However, Felipe truly delighted in characterizing all the different tourists: Germans, Russians, Italians, and the English. He claimed the English were the best tourists, humble and curious. He was not so kind to the others. It was funny listening to his depictions of German, Russian and Italian tourists, even though they were stereotypical and rude in their own way. He was like that uncle we dismiss at Thanksgiving, but laugh with even though we know he’s wrong. Today I think of Trump. How many “white” Americans viewed him as that uncle or that relative that just doesn’t think before he talks, but believed he was harmless. I know there’s a world of difference between Felipe and Trump but I don’t know that everybody knows that.
Our last excursion was a trip to a waterpark. It was a hot day even though the sky was overcast with Calima, a hot, sand laden wind that blows in from the Northern Sahara in Africa. I decided to go shirtless and get wet as soon as possible. My wife and I took turns with our youngest. There’s no other way for me to say this: I felt like an attraction at a carnival. As I helped my youngest daughter get on water slides, waited for her to come back down, and gave her encouragement I was the focus of intense glares. During my time on the island I learned that most of the employees at local businesses and tourist attractions were Guanches, and we got along just fine, they never stared, they were always friendly. It was the tourists that had what I’ll call “eye problems.”
I committed to enjoying that day. To walking proudly with my family, my sun burnt skin a brown so rich and dark it sent shockwaves through all those people who leered at me. Fuck you, I thought. Fuck you, I will not be trapped in your history, I will not be the tool you use to remember some bygone era of death and destruction. I will not be the object you return to again and again to prove whatever it is you need to prove to yourself. I laughed and smiled a lot that day, and I ran around with my family getting soaked on all the rides. The trap, be damned.
This essay is part of our ongoing essays series focused on responding to the 2016 Presidential election.
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