I took two years of Italian in high school on the Jersey Shore. Most of the class was Italian. The teacher was a foxy green-eyed Américan ragazza surnamed Green. She was living proof that Anglophones could learn languages, but I guess I overlooked that. I didn’t learn much. Nobody did.
The language that really caught my fancy in high school was Jamaican Creole. Nobody spoke it on the Shore, but there was an FM radio station out of Newark with broadcasts by and for Jamaicans. They played dancehall, calypso, and reggae with a style of mixing, sound effects, and MC’ing that was no doubt straight out of Kingston.
What could be sexier than a femme of child-bearing age flowing “deep” in a Caribbean Creole?
Like many a redblooded East Coast son, I went West as soon as I was high school-free. I made it all the way across the desert to the Cali coast and put in for a driver’s license in a Latin neighborhood. An old man in a white suit addressed me in Spanish as I loitered outside the Department of Motor Vehicles. I dug that. I thought it’d be cool as hell if I could speak Spanish. I didn’t think it could be done, though.
I started reading things in Portuguese, Spanish, and some Italian just for the hell of it. Mostly I used the Bible, because it was so carefully translated. I’d have a Portuguese Bible and an English Bible open side by side. That way I didn’t need a dictionary. I did this on and off for a few years. Soon I could just about read Portuguese straight up.
I was drawn to the Romance languages because they seemed suave, exotic, and erotic. Yet they were also easy since I had a native command of English with deep vocabulary.
My second year after college, I decided to go for the jugular on Spanish and see where it would take me. As I plowed through conjugations and example sentences on my own, I tried to shake the feeling that Romance conjugations were ridiculous and unreal. This feeling had been with me from the start.
After I moved to Los Ángeles, I found a listing for a job at a call center and pushed my ’68 Chevy Nova with its 400-horse 383 smallblock stroker into the Valley to interview. Given the distance, and the car I drove, I was gonna be spending a good chunk of my pay on gas even if I got the job, but I figured something was better than nothing.
When I walked into the lobby, standing right in the middle of it was the finest Indian woman I’d ever seen — that year, at least. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her hair, her stance, her jugs, her eyes, her brown skin. Everything.
Then I remembered this was a workplace, not a Vietnamese coffeehouse. I snapped out of it, but it was too late. Mala D had caught me in flagrante delicto, and she was in charge of hiring. I followed her ass with my eyes as she led me to a little room and sat me down next to a phone, then called me from another room to interview me. Surprisingly, she hired me. I guess true flattery ain’t the worst policy.
We operators worked our magic in a big room set up like an internet café. I went by the alias “Ronnie Cash”. I would guess the race of each callee based on their name and area code, and switch accents accordingly. I was smooth.
My first or second day, Mala D walks in. I see her out of the corner of my eye. She’s got a stand-alone desk behind me. I go about my business. Soon, though, I hear some chick speaking Spanish on the phone behind me, fluent as a river. I turn. It’s Mala D.
I’m wondering, She Mexican?
I moved on to greener pastures in two weeks’ time. I found a job translating and editing subtitles on Wilshire Boulevard. I also signed up for law school. I forgot to tell the call center I was quitting. I just stopped calling in to schedule new shifts. One day I got a brief voicemail from Mala D. She told me not to bother, since I obviously didn’t give a damn.
Months went by. Law school started. As the incoming class milled around the courtyard on orientation day, I spotted a familiar face across the courtyard. I couldn’t quite place her. Do I know her from college? I approached her as she approached me. And then it hit me. This was Mala D. Somehow we’d enrolled at the same law school in the same city in the same year. We’d even been assigned to the same section of our incoming class.
Sometimes we studied together. We had our similarities. She was Indian, not Mexican. My eyes hadn’t lied. But she’d spent time in México. She’d earned that fluent Spanish by learning it and speaking it as an adult.
She sounded like a native. I told her how much I dug that. I said I wanted to do the same. She said, “Se puede.” I said, “What?” She said, “Se puede. It’s possible.”
We were living in L.A. The stars spoke English, but the common people spoke slightly more Spanish than English. Half the radio stations on air broadcast in Spanish. English shared the other half with Korean, Cantonese, and so on. I didn’t spend much time on Spanish, but I flooded my senses with it. I listened to cumbia on the radio. La Sonora Dinamita and Los Ángeles Ázules. The summer of 2005 came. Reggaeton swept over South Cali.
I ran into many walls in L.A. “Racist” attitudes had given way to a more open social vibe in most of North América as I was growing up and coming of age. In sunny southwestern towns like L.A., San Diego, and Phoenix, though, the apartheid had distilled itself and become more intense — just like in sunny southwestern Australia and sunny southwestern South Africa, if what I’ve heard is true. And racism was far from being just a White thing. Locally bred Latinos were at war with Black folk and East Asians. These feuds had spilled over from the prison system. Meanwhile, expat communities from all over the world viewed each other and the local working class with suspicion and distrust.
As an East Asian man, I was invisible by default in White Anglo social settings. To become visible, you had to “try too hard” and be in everybody’s face all the time. Black social settings were better, but in some ways trickier. You definitely weren’t supposed to be there.
You could also roll with the apartheid, the “aparthood”, and mingle exclusively “within your race”. This was second nature for most of my kind, but it didn’t make sense to me.
First, it was unfriendly.
Second, all the resources and “access” of Los Ángeles were in White and Black circles. In fact, most of Asian L.A. literally worked for White L.A. from nine to five as mid- or low-level employees, slaving away in a white collar till dusk and then chilling for two hours on a clogged up 60 Freeway to nowhere.
All this was supposed to be okay, but I knew it was shit. I’d been in Frisco. I’d been in Asia, where Asians could be kings, queens, and beggars. In L.A. we were a caste of accountants and computer engineers.
Sometimes we realized we were being sold short, but then we’d quickly remind each other that we were “a minority”, so it couldn’t be helped. Some of us would agitate for public figures and mainstream media to show us respect, as if we were at their mercy because we were “a minority”.
A crescendo of Fuck that was building up within in me.
On the wall of a school in East L.A., I’d seen a mural of Che Guevara pointing a finger and saying, “You are NOT a minority.”
In an East L.A. backstreet, I’d seen a playground wall with a beautiful mural and the caption, “This land shall be ours.” It may have been in Spanish, I don’t remember. Whatever that was, I wanted some of that.
With all the prejudices that East Asians had against Latinos, and the Asian-Latino feud that had jumped the prison fence, I thought, wouldn’t it be grand if I could be Asian and Latino at the same time?
South América had been calling me since I was six. I thought of Mala D and her México. I set my summer aside and flew to Caracas.
As the airport express bus rolled into the concrete jungle, I told myself I’d get off the bus when we got into a good neighborhood. But it was just one bad neighborhood after another. I got off around the Central Park towers. I had an arepa and asked the guy if he knew any cheap hotels around there. He pointed up the street and said there was a decent inn with a Chinese diner right by it, so I might wanna stop in there and see if they could help me with anything I needed.
Sounded like good advice to me. I walked into that diner and asked the guys in Cantonese if they knew where I could exchange money. I’m an ATM kind of guy, but Venezuela had a black market rate much better than the official, so I’d brought cash dollars with me. The guys that ran the diner discussed it amongst themselves, switching into Hoisan — a different kind of Cantonese — so that I wouldn’t be able to follow along. Then they dealt with me directly at the going rate.
The next morning I awoke to a record playing in the neighborhood out the window. It was bittersweet, haunting music, full of saudade, perfect in the morning air.
I turned on the TV. It was a telenovela. I couldn’t understand much of it. I told myself I’d be able to understand it by the time this odyssey was over.
I looked out the window. I had a long view out over the neighborhood called Silence. I had three and a half months before I had to roam home to L.A. Till then I could go anywhere.
Read more —
part 1: speaker in the storm
part 2: comeback speaker
part 3: impossible speaker
part 4: honorary speaker
part 5: madaspeaker
part 6: romance speaker
part 7: born-again speaker
part 8: gateway speaker
part 9: touchable speaker
part 10: everyspeaker