My brain is a constant battlefield: harsh ch’s and guttural r’s fighting against soft ah’s and rolling rrrr’s. My tongue tries to follow, catch up, code switch to what my brain wants. As I suppress some words that come naturally for others that don’t quite fit what I am trying to say, I speak, knowing that there is a better way to express myself. I continually ask myself, “Who am I talking to?” I can’t say anything off the top of my head without running through it. When I write, I pick through the words in my head and constantly erase when I realize the “wrong” one slipped out.
The colonization began when I was 3. That was the year when one, two, three, and four staked their claim over my brain and tried to enslave uno, dos, tres, y cuatro—telling them they were no longer appropriate in public. It was the year when my favorite fruit became grapes instead of uvas and the year my abuelita couldn’t understand when I told her “I love you” because she could only understand “Te quiero.” My mind was colonized by the English language in preschool. Ever since, it has been a constant struggle between accepting the privilege and responsibility that comes with being bilingual, and fighting to keep my mother tongue alive in its original integrity.
On my first day of school, I was all excitement. Not like my brother, who had trembled beneath my mother’s skirt, trying to hold off entering the doors of education as long as possible. As soon as I was unbuckled from my car seat, I was flying through those doors too fast to hear my mom yelling, “Espera, mi hija!”
I greeted the teacher, “Hola, como está usted?”—just like I was taught to politely address my elders.
She said: “NO. We say hello.”
And just like that, a border was drawn across my mind—half of me was legitimate, appropriate, and civilized, and the other half was wild, inappropriate, and primitive. Living with the genetic memory of my Incan ancestras/os, whose tongues were cut for noncompliance, I obeyed. I let those unfamiliar words infect my brain, spread, grow, and exit out through my tongue—temporarily stunting the flourishing of my native language.