By Vanessa Perez
“No? That wasn’t any better?” my mother would ask. “Say it one more time.”
“Chip, ship, sheep.” These three little words had distinct sounds and meanings when I said them. They lost all distinction when my mother would repeat them after me. I laughed. My mother would join in the laughter. I thought of it as a game that my mother and I played frequently. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard for her to pronounce the sounds. I couldn’t have been over the age of six at the time. She was determined to practice her English and lose her accent.
My mother never had to tell me that her accented English bothered her. At the age of six, I may not have understood this, but as I grew older it became clear. I noticed that when my mother and I were out shopping or at a restaurant inevitably someone would ask her, “Where are you from?” She paused and smiled, then would say “I’m from here.” Forcing the person asking the question to either drop it, or probe further, “but you have an accent.”
If they probed, and they often do, she might add something like, “I’m from Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and I was born an U.S. citizen, so I’m from here.” I’m old enough now to know what is behind her indignant response. It’s her desire to feel that she belongs. To be recognized for what she is, a U.S. citizen. To not be seen as a foreigner, an immigrant.
My mother moved to Maryland from Puerto Rico at the age of 16. She graduated from high school and college there. She is fluent in English although her speech is accented. I can barely detect her accent. This might be because I was raised by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who all speak English with a Spanish accent. I really don’t hear their accents anymore, not until someone points it out.
My aunt, my father’s sister, is more outspoken about her discomfort with her accent. “It bothers, you know, to have people constantly ask me where I’m from. I’ve lived in this country since I was twelve!” she’ll say. She is now nearly 60.
The English-only movement in this country is strong. Over the past several months, we’ve all heard Republican presidential hopefuls speak about changing the official language to English in this country if they win the election. There was even an advertisement that ran against Mitt Romney highlighting the fact that he speaks French, as if that were a bad thing. But speaking English in this country isn’t good enough. You need to be able to speak English with an American accent.
Maybe my family history explains why I was outraged by the new Cover Girl Tone Rehab commercial featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Sofia Vergara. The commercial begins as most Cover Girl advertisements do, with beautiful women selling the secret to youth, beauty and happiness in a jar. The end of this commercial, however, takes an odd turn when Ellen says one of Sofia’s lines. Sofia retorts, “That’s what I was supposed to say now.” Ellen replies “Well, no one can understand you.”
When I saw the advertisement for the first time it made me cringe.
Sofia Vergara is an Emmy nominated actor and one of the leads in ABC’s six-time Emmy award-winning series “Modern Family.” She is the hottest Latina actor of the moment. What do you mean no one can understand what she’s saying?
I know that this is supposed to be all in good fun. Ellen and Sofia are both women of comedy. Yet in the current anti-immigrant and anti-Latino climate, the advertisement is highly problematic. It reinforces the stereotypes of the hot-blooded, sexy, spitfire Latina. The one who should be seen, but never heard. The Latina (read immigrant/foreigner) whose speech is so unintelligible, she has no right to speak.
It’s time for the United States to embrace multilingualism and acknowledge the wonderful linguistic resources this country has. As a country we lose when we don’t see these linguistic resources as an asset.
Vanessa Perez is an assistant professor in the Dept. of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College — CUNY and is the author of Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement.