“Yeah, you don’t look Spanish.” Here we go again. I offered a polite smile and feigned some degree of surprise at my co-worker’s statement. In reality, this sentiment has echoed to me over and over again during my time in the U.S. He continued, “Yeah, when I first met you I just thought you were like…a native Californian.” Yup. My faux-shock was starting to wear off, but still I tried to engage with the conversation.
That was until things took an unexpected turn. “It’s just crazy to me because you literally sound like you’re from Beverly Hills.” Uh…come again?
This time I struggled—to no avail admittedly—not to feel offended by the insinuation that I came across as a vapid airhead or a stuck-up princess or whatever other associations you might come up with.
However, my accent can fool people into believing I am something that is actually far from the truth. If you met me, you’d probably think something in the same vein as my co-worker. Although that Beverly Hills remark was truly a first, my generic American accent is a proven source of much confusion in light of my actual cultural background.
Born and raised in Spain, I moved to Switzerland when I was eight years old and five years later, I moved one final time to Argentina where I finished high school.
Even though I’ve spent more than half my life communicating in English, as a college junior this is only my third year living in the United States. And while some people I meet in this country make an attempt to understand the confusing cultural hybridity that defines me, most can’t get past my misleading accent. It ultimately renders them unable to regard me as anything other than an American.
This Americanized accent of mine is a direct product of my life abroad. At some point down the road, the English language that my mother had introduced me to and that was used almost exclusively in the schools I attended, gradually eclipsed my native Spanish; leaving the latter to trail behind and fall prey to increasing disuse. This, as well as having to learn other languages on the side, reversed a previously established cultural dynamic, and before I knew it, I had grown separated from Spain. I reached some sort of neutral middle ground, with English as the primary bridge of communication with people in my community.
My high school friends and I would joke about the identity crisis we all collectively experienced, especially when it came to the dreaded task of articulating our nationality.
A classmate who is Swiss, Brazilian and German wrestled with what to pick as her “home” country and a close friend of mine—who has a Snow White complexion that defies everyone’s perception of what it means to look Italian—speaks her native Italian, English and Spanish so immaculately that most people are at a loss for how to make sense of her. In that sense, in the communities I was a part of, it was not uncommon to meet people whose accents were practically untraceable or whose standardized English would take the form of a generic “American” accent, even when they had no personal ties to the U.S.
In response to what you may or may not be thinking: it’s true there’s no reason that sounding American should manifest itself as an issue or that it necessarily equates to the negation of other identities (in my case, the Spanish one). However, unfortunately for me, the image people have of me carries a huge weight in reinforcing how I view myself.
It’s reached a point to when people intuitively question my Spanish-ness, I can’t help but question it as well.
The truth is that every time someone writes me off as another American or Californian, it gets to me because it confirms something I’m already massively self-conscious about. In the end, a childhood of cultural dissociation, a three-year period of full immersion in the American experience and one too many words forgotten in my native language has culminated in me feeling like a tourist in my own country, a timid guest in what is supposed to be my home.
Spending the last year living in an on-campus community that housed mostly foreign exchange students (and its biggest sub-community coincidentally was the Spanish one) further exacerbated this dilemma. While living within an international community felt natural and familiar to me, bonding with the Spanish exchange students proved to be a challenge. Even though I desperately wanted to reach out—to connect with these people; my people—all of my insecurities started re-surfacing. I was maliciously convinced that I wouldn’t be accepted into the Spanish band because I had spent one too many years out of the country, because I fumbled over certain words, because I was completely clueless about cool and age-appropriate Madrid slang—the list goes on. Eventually, it all coalesced into an overwhelming sense of shame and a sad resignation that at this point in my life I couldn’t call myself an authentic Spaniard even if I wanted to.
Language became a self-imposed tool of exclusion.
I beat myself up because I felt like some phony imposter who had appropriated all of these stereotypically American traits while still calling myself Spanish. The overwhelming fear of being judged for not satisfying the Spanish cultural prototype resulted in me keeping my distance from far too many of them. By the time the year was over and they had returned to their respective homes, all that my experience had amounted to was a missed opportunity to connect with people who, more likely than not, would have been accepting of the type of Spanish person I am.
Studying at an American university has exacerbated my inner cultural turmoil. While, speech-wise, there is nothing that differentiates me from the people around me, internally I’m fighting a losing battle to preserve a Spanish identity that gets harder to maintain by the day and slips from my fingers with time. At the end of the day, I neither have a pronounced Spanish accent, nor do I fit into people’s conception of what being Spanish looks or feels like. Instead, I can only take comfort in the fragile reassurance that despite all of these negative reinforcements, I was born and raised in Madrid and therefore—like the solution to a mathematical equation—that gives me the right to call myself Spanish.
Still, it’s the little, everyday things that render that assurance so fragile.
Having no detectable quirks in my enunciation, heavily engaging with American cultural references and confidently expressing myself in the English language; these are all things that conspire to erase the Spanish part of me. And while I could never call myself an American (it wouldn’t be true or even make any sense) how much of me is really Spanish anymore? What’s left of that part of me? While assimilating into the crowd you find yourself in isn’t necessarily bad you always wonder just where that leaves you. What do you make of yourself after your cultural identity has been diluted into a grimy and generic average you can’t seem to identify or reconcile with?