I cannot tell you the number of times that people have tried to classify my ethnicity by my last name. In fact, I have blogged about this in the past. My father was from Michigan, the son of parents that were half Canadian. But since he was not a part of my life after the age of one or two, my upbringing was certainly influenced by my mother Evangelina and her parents – my grandmother Mauricia and my grandfather Arturo.
Since I am a first generation American on my mother’s side, and my abuelos spoke no English, it should come as no surprise that I learned Spanish early. In fact, it was my primary language. My mother, who had learned to speak passable English from living in the Mormon colonies in Mexico with my aunts, emphasized the importance of speaking English well since we would be living in the U.S. As a result, i was bilingual from the time that I can remember having any conversations with others.
I started first grade at Vilas Elementary in El Paso in 1962. There were no kindergarten programs at the time, so we all started in first grade. There was a boy in my class (Jorge) that spoke very little English, and my teacher Miss Wilson spoke no Spanish. That certainly presented a problem to both Jorge and Miss Wilson.
During recess Jorge and I struck up a conversation in Spanish and quickly became buddies. Miss Wilson noticed that we were talking and was shocked at my ability to communicate with him. She loudly asked something to the effect “Randy Bullis! How on earth did you learn to speak Spanish?” Apparently when my mom had brought me to school that day she assumed my mom was the maid. (which is an entirely different topic that I will address some time.) Because my last name was Bullis she assumed I could not possible know Spanish.
Jorge and I were assigned to sit with each other for the school year and we worked together with me translating as we went. By the end of the fall, he spoke English much better. (Isn’t it amazing how quick kids pick up language skills?)
I never thought much of my ability to speak both languages, it was just part of who I was. I spoke English at school and with some of my friends, I spoke both languages at home, and I spoke Spanish with my family in Juarez.
It came in handy a lot of times, and I know it saved me from harm at least one time. My brother and I and some friends were at the little park near our house when a group of thugs approached us at the park. I listened to them as they planned, in Spanish, to take the baseball equipment from us. As they approached i was able to warn my brother and friends to run before they got to us. They seemed confused about how we knew what they had been talking about until my brother stopped, turned to them, and yelled some choice words in Spanish. I don’t remember what he said, I just know that once i reached over and grabbed him to keep running that I couldn’t help but laugh.
Fast forward a few years. My mom met my Dad (not my father) and they quickly married. My dad spoke no Spanish except for the naughty words that he had picked up here and there. Because of that, we quit speaking Spanish at home. During the mid to late 60’s there was a large push in the schools to prohibit speaking Spanish, so we pretty much quit speaking it at school too. In a short time my ability to speak Spanish was almost gone. I struggled to speak it well enough to still speak to my loving grandparents.
In high school I dated a young woman that insisted that I speak Spanish when I could, especially since she spoke Spanish with her parents. There would be times when she would only speak to me in Spanish and forced me to respond in Spanish as well. Thanks to her I gradually started to regain my ability to speak it, although with an accent. During our marriage it was common for us to speak Spanish, and we tried to make sure our daughters learned it as well. Although we are no longer married, I am thankful that she made me embrace my culture and language.
My first job out of law school was in Laredo, Texas. I was quite surprised when I moved there in 1981 that the city was quite Spanish oriented. Everyone spoke Spanish. It did not matter if your last name was Sanchez or Bullis, people spoke to you in Spanish assuming you knew the language. It was there that i regained my familiarity with the language, to the point that I did presentations for the DA’s office at schools, PTA meetings, etc. in both English and Spanish.
I have shared the story before about the poor shocked criminal defendants who appeared before me as a night court judge and cursed me repeatedly in Spanish, only to have me start reading them their rights in Spanish. The look on their face was priceless.
Back in the days before databases and other software programs, the courts in El Paso used an old Rolodex to appoint attorneys to represent defendants. If you were bilingual, you were in as a pink card. If the defendant spoke no English they skipped to the next available pink card. I was a pink card. My ability to speak both languages helped me keep my law practice afloat.
I do not turn my back on my father’s heritage. I embrace that part of my ancestry with no qualms. But I was raised in a different culture and I love it. It is who I am.
My stomach turns when people say that i should not identify myself as Hispanic, that I am an American first. Really? I can’t be both a proud American and embrace the culture that defines me?
in fact, I am quite surprised that in my adopted home town of San Antonio that more Hispanics don’t speak Spanish. While they ostensibly accept the culture, they don’t speak the language. I think that misses a huge part of what it’s all about. So let me say this to the many persons who in the past were surprised by my ability to speak Spanish – Don’t let the last name fool you.
Good, I got that off my chest.