March 22nd, 2011
Shame In A Name: Why It Was Embarrassing To Speak Spanish

“Franciiiscoooo, eh,?” That was the way my former roommate pronounced my birth name with just enough mockery and disdain to let me know there was something wrong with it. “Uh, no. Call me ‘Frank,’” I proudly corrected him at the time. Whew! I thought to myself, glad I cleared that up! I remember this incident, which took place over 12 years ago, because at the time I believed that speaking Spanish and pronouncing Spanish words correctly was embarrassing.

During my elementary years, I recall my mother picking me up from school and asking me in Spanish how my day went. I would mutter, “No mamá, no me hables en español, háblame en ínglés y no me llames Pancho.” Essentially, I forbade my mother to speak Spanish or address me by my nickname. Looking back, it’s ironic that even my Latino peers and I would make fun of those who spoke Spanish! We thought that anything having to do with Mexico was dirty, poor, inferior, and just the mere mention of it brought shame.

For many years I introduced myself as “Frank,” with the mentality that, if I lived in the United States, I should assimilate and become part of the mainstream predominately English-speaking culture — even if that meant dropping my name and denying my Mexican roots. Sadly, I did not realize it at the time, but in doing so I was essentially negating a part of my identity.

Perhaps it was Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Latinos in the media, xenophobic attitudes, or fear of the unknown that lead to such hatred of my own culture. Either way, the fact remained that I was ashamed of my roots for a great portion of my childhood and adolescence. The negative consequences did not bode so well during cross-border family reunions. My siblings and I would make sure that we pronounced every Spanish word correctly for fear that if we mistakenly said something or mispronounced a word, our cousins would make fun of us.

Our insecurities turned out to be true when one of my siblings referenced the English word tuna in Spanish believing it meant the same thing. Much to his embarrassment, one of our cousins immediately corrected him, “¡Es atún, guey.!” Much to our dismay, as much as we wanted to become closer to our relatives, these reunions were the source of much anxiety just as we tried to ensure we would speak Spanish properly.

This anxiety did not lessen with time as one of my siblings overheard a cousin referring to us as “los primos pochos,” the pocho cousins. Or, as the dictionary defines it: A pejorative term used by native-born Mexicans to describe Chicanos or Mexican-Americans who are perceived to have forgotten or rejected their Mexican heritage to some degree. Typically pochos lack fluency in Spanish. [To read more about pochos, click here]

For me, the catalyst to fully embrace my background without shame occurred during the early 2000s when Latino pop culture soared to incredible and unthinkable proportions when Latino musicians like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez made being Latino trendy. Latino pride consumed me from one moment to the next. I no longer was ashamed of being Mexican-American. From then on, I introduced myself as Francisco Cepeda to anyone without fear or embarrassment. I became engrossed in my desire to learn more about my culture and speak Spanish perfectly. I even studied abroad for one semester in Monterrey, Mexico to improve my written and spoken Spanish. No longer was it a stigma to be a Latino.

Even during my television stint in Corpus Christi, (city with a high Latino population), my news director at the time notified me that a viewer had called the station to complain that I was not pronouncing the names of adjacent and neighboring towns “correctly.” The caller was referring to the way I pronounced Spanish names like, Hidalgo and Nueces, I pronounced them in Spanish, not in their Anglicized form like many others did. I immediately knew it was the caller who was mistaken. Presumably, it could be that with each passing generation, one unknowingly distances him or herself from their Latino roots.

Today, I can fully embrace and respect being bicultural without fear of having to define or stand up where I come from. It feels good to be Francisco Cepeda. And so, it’s this peace of mind that helps me understand others who have chastised or discriminated against me on either side of the fence in the past. So while I can’t help but be disappointed that it took pop culture, and not my own developmental maturity, to fully embrace my biculturalism, I’m grateful that I finally came around.

Follow Francisco on Twitter @SeguroCepeda

7 thoughts on “Shame In A Name: Why It Was Embarrassing To Speak Spanish

  1. I am a pocha. Never for rejecting my culture, but for forgetting and failing to practice. Therefore, I speak Spanglish. I have those cousins. I’ll even take it one step further. I won’t speak Spanish with someone from South America or Spain because they speak so formal. In Mexico, “street language” is overwhelmingly tolerated, so my chance to speak the formal version suffers. My cousins in Mexico teased me as a child because I spoke the formal “usted” version. They would say I spoke to them as though I was a boss speaking to her workers. Now, I’ve forgotten how to speak it at all. Shame on me.

    • I believe in certain parts of Central and South America, friends and casual strangers address each other in the formal tone. Don’t be ashamed, Jessica! In the end we are all different but at the core more similar than we think. ;-)

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