Full disclosure: I do not speak Spanish. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, I understand the language to a degree of absolute confidence, yet I rarely attempt to speak Spanish aloud.
I know I won't pull it off in a manner that is comparable to my English, and that stops me from even trying—or that is my rationalization.
My father, who came to the U.S. at eight from Mexico, was punished for speaking Spanish at the Catholic School he attended in his new land.
I heard those painful anecdotes in English, in a house where I also learned my American accent from watching "Three's Company" and "Rockford Files" reruns.
In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz explained his unease with Spanish to a Univision reporter after being asked if he could answer questions in Español: "I understand almost everything in Spanish, but I can't speak as well as I'd like."
Switching back to English, Cruz said, "I have the problem of the second-generation immigrant." He added, "To be honest, what I really spoke at home was Spanglish."
The reasons for this second-generation immigrant's unease in Spanish are complex, but the source of this complication seems tied to an immigrant's sense of survival.
Virginia Talley, who runs Hyde Park's The Language House, has very personal reasons for trying to get her students to experience the fullness of the Spanish language. The Language House offers private and group Spanish conversation classes, and in pre-COVID days even offered immersion trips to Oaxaca, Mexico for those who wanted to explore the land as well as the language.
Students of the The Languge House go on a hike in Argentina as part of an immersion trip the school offers. (The Language House)
Talley's father, a family doctor in Bastrop, had a lab tech who was originally from Mexico but never spoke his native tongue. According to Talley, the man considered Spanish taboo and did not speak it to his children due to locally perceived lower-class implications of the language.
"It was this horribly tragic thing when I look back on it," said Talley. "Where I was growing up, a lot of my friends were Hispanic… but they didn't speak it at all because, again, I think it was really looked down upon; the parents didn't even try to teach their kids."
Now Talley often sees second-generation Latino immigrants coming to her classes out of something close to guilt, or even a sense of responsibility to a lost heritage. "People feeling like they were embarrassed because they think they should be able to speak Spanish; you know, maybe it was not spoken at home, or they rejected it or they did not learn it properly."
The stigma of speaking Spanish is lifting, according to Talley; and now even those who can speak Spanish fluently seem compelled to learn it better.
While teaching Spanish 101 at Austin Community College, Talley says she was flabbergasted when she saw that everyone in her class was Latino. "I thought, 'What is going on here?' They were all heritage speakers and so their Spanish was beautiful (but), they could not write, so it was like an interesting dynamic, teaching heritage speakers basically how to write properly."
Marisol Cortez, an award-winning author who will be one of the few in-person authors featured in Austin's upcoming Texas Book Festival, knows the cultural complexities of this language issue well, and she is doing something about it.
Marisol Cortez feel internal pressure when she speaks Spanish, since she's not fluent in it. (Marisol Cortez)
A mother of a 13-year-old and a toddler, Cortez has made it a point to have her children speak both English and Spanish.
This was something that she herself did not get to experience while growing up, and it was an early impediment to her environmental activism that she had to correct.
Despite having a Mexican-American father, Cortez never heard Spanish at home. Growing up with a more natural command of English than Spanish in San Antonio was a bit of a double-edged sword for the writer.
Cortez recalls how her dad's own brand of Tex-Mex Spanish was mocked when he visited relatives in Mexico; so, the language was curiously a problem on both sides of the border.
"My dad didn't ever speak it at home," she says. "So I grew up kind of absorbing it but not speaking it at home and then anything that I am able to say in Spanish now was pretty much acquired as an adult."
The insecurity regarding her Spanish remains a slight block to her even today. She says when she speaks it she's nervous and feels internal pressure to sound more fluent than she is. But it's important to her that it stays alive in her family.
"The importance of Spanish for future generations lies in its ability to keep us tied to the struggles of our parents and grandparents," Cortez said. "It's a way of acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of those struggles. Even as we acknowledge the reality that Spanish is a colonial language imposed on peoples original to this continent, it's also a way of keeping us connected to our neighbors, accountable to their struggles. It's an important form of solidarity."
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.