TEEN
01/21/2015 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The First English Word I Learned Was 'Loser'

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By Lisa Burgoa, Cypress Bay High School '15

The first English word I learned was "loser."

It was flung at me by a scabby-kneed second-grader who gleefully chirped out his condemnation as I stood alone on the sun-dappled steps of the Longbranch Elementary School playground. At first, I thought perhaps he had misconstrued the name on the sticker tacked onto my Winnie the Pooh sweater. "No, Lisa," I said in my broken English. "Lisa. Lisa."

Though this wasn't the most auspicious beginning to my first day of school in the United States, I fell in love in spite of everything. No, not with Scabby-Knees. I fell in love with his language.

It was a confusing love. My heart was already straddling two continents before Papi's new job wrenched my family away from Santiago, Chile, and deposited us on the parched red earth of suburban Texas. Mama was Polish, and under her warm tutelage I learned her language, with its clipped consonants clacking like horseshoes on the cobbled streets of Warsaw. Papi, on the other hand, was Bolivian. He regaled me with tales of the ancient Incan empire, the rolling r's and staccato trills of his Spanish as jagged as the Andes mountains. His voice lulled me into daydreams of one day reuniting the kingdom and ruling as the newfound Sapa Inca, the mythical Child of the Sun.

As far as I was concerned, the world was split into two halves: those who spoke like Mama, and those who spoke like Papi. Integrating English into my clumsy world view would mean slashing the very seams of my identity and sewing me back together again from scratch.

But the American school system did just that. Every day, I painstakingly trudged through the alphabet and dizzying permutations of its 26 letters. Laboriously, I limped through the monosyllabic ponderings of picture books, then graduated to slim paperbacks, before plunging headfirst into solemn, heavy tomes spouting out the literary richness of Louisa May Alcott and Toni Morrison and Sylvia Plath. Smitten with the language, I resolved to be a writer, and promptly abandoned my dreams of ascending to the Incan throne as the Sapa Inca. I was so hungry for English, I failed to notice how starved I was of my mother tongues.

Too late, I noticed how my Spanish began to fray around the edges with the twang of an accent, and how my Polish was famished for its characteristic color. It was as if English assumed the same imperialistic tradition as its speakers, as it plundered my Spanish of its gold and debilitated my Polish as if through smallpox. English was a big, burly bully, like the scabby-kneed second-grader on the steps of the Longbranch Elementary School playground.

I found myself persisted by the same questions that shadow all immigrants - preservation versus assimilation, English versus the language of my ancestors. Language is destiny, I reminded myself, as I contemplated my reflection in the mirror. I traced the dual-ethnic features of my face, the green eyes reminiscent of the toothless old women in flowered babushkas I met in Poland, the long, flat nose and sun-kissed tan skin recalling my Incan ancestors in Bolivia. My heart, I realized, beat the one word that was the same in any language: Lisa. Lisa. Lisa.

And in that moment, I knew. I knew why I was always so enthralled with Papi's stories of the Incan temples that still stood in the heart of Bolivia. They had weathered the centuries and the influence of Spaniards to continue to stretch their spires to the sky, saving themselves from cultural oblivion. And I knew, regardless of my language, that my heritage was forged from the same unbreakable stones as these structures, that my identity was as resilient as an Incan temple, and that I was as powerful as the Sapa Inca.

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