Essay | Wetiko and Cultural Assimilation

By Myk Estrada,

Mexican farm worker

As my grandmother grows older in age, I’ve made sure to ask her as many questions as possible so I don’t miss out on the vast wealth of family history she holds in her mind. “What jobs did you have growing up?” Her answer; everything from school custodian to cotton picker (her least favorite). “What was it like when The Beatles came out?” “They were good”, she says, “but not really my favorite.” “Why didn’t you teach my mom to speak Spanish when she was little?” Her answer, not so easy.

Watts LA, during the ‘race riots’

My grandmother grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during the 1940s, a time when xenophobia induced redlining & segregation of the city’s neighborhoods set the stage for the Watts Riots taking place some 20 years later. My grandmother’s grandmother was technically from Texas, although her parents knew the land as Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War in 1846. My grandmother’s mother & grandmother only spoke Spanish, so she learned English the same way many Mexican-American’s around the time did – in classrooms under the threat of physical punishment for speaking Spanish. At the time, as it is in many instances today, being of Mexican dissent conjured images of hurtful stereotypes; lazy, dirty, stupid, all things my grandmother remembers being called as a child.

englishSo it was in those classrooms where my grandmother learned her new tongue. Was hit across the knuckles with a yardstick if she slipped into the language of her people, even if only for a moment. I’m not sure if my grandmother ever believed what those ignorant people were saying about her & her people – she’s one of the proudest women I know – but somewhere along the way she internalized the idea that speaking Spanish was a disadvantage. When she had my mother during the 1960s, her & my grandfather chose not to teach their children Spanish, even though they regularly spoke it to each other in the home. Even though it meant my mother wasn’t able to communicate with her own grandmother.

Growing up, my parents, both Mexican-American’s whose parents didn’t teach them Spanish for similar reasons, didn’t make a big deal out of not speaking Spanish. It wasn’t something I ever questioned; “we speak English,” I thought to myself. Now, my parents never told me I was better for speaking English, but I clearly remember being complimented by teachers for speaking so well & comments made by other native-English speaking kids about how the kids with accents sounded funny. I always had a slight sense of not being better than the kids who spoke Spanish, but being different. I was American. I listened to hip-hop, not Spanish music. I idolized Michael Jordan not Cuauhtémoc Blanco. I was normal.

 It wasn’t until I was a older that I began realizing my family’s assimilation, while instilling a sense of pride for achieving the American dream my great grandparents had for our family, wasn’t without it’s consequences. As the demographics of this country continue shifting to look more like me, speaking Spanish is often seen as a skill. But more important than lacking an additional language to add on my resume, I felt a disconnect from a large piece of my culture. I came to understand that as I looked down upon the kinds in my class wearing ranchero boots singing mariachi music, I was looking down at a myself. While I once saw my fluent English as a marker of success, I now realized it partly came at the expense of connecting with a rich history only accessed through the language of my great grandparents.

 When I became aware of the concept of wetiko, I was finally able to put a name to this internal struggle that’s put a divide between me & my culture. My great grandparents only wanted a better life for their family, but the cost was something they couldn’t have forseen. Although I have grown apart from some aspects of my culture, seeing wetiko at work is the first step in healing & reconnecting myself. While I don’t yet speak the language of my great grandparents using words, they live through me each day. That is the truest way I can honor what was lost while embracing what was gained.