07/09/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

Latinísima: Embracing The Language of My Identity

Julia Nichols

I am a Latina.

My American and Mexican worlds do not co-exist. They do not rub shoulders. They bleed together, creating one world without boundaries, without a Río Grande to split them into two, hold one back from the other, keep the other out.

My parents' cocktail parties in Chicago in the 60s embraced cigar smoke, loud, swooning Mexican ballads playing on the hi-fi, and enough food to feed a small town: tostadas, carnitas and tamales, guacamole and stacks of warm tortillas, Planters peanuts and Fritos corn chips, red Jello molds and celery ribboned with cream cheese.

My world included watching grandpa kill the live chickens he carried back from the marketplace by twirling them around and wringing their necks in the back patio in Guadalajara, where -- before my mom bought the washing machine at Sears -- we washed clothes on a stone washboard.

One of my favorite memories is of my grandmother in her blue travel suit, praying in Spanish, her fingers feeling their way from one black rosary bead to another, while my parents, aunts and uncles knelt around her, echoing her. When the string of prayers ended, abuela would close her eyes and move her right hand in the sign of the cross, giving us her blessing.

I worked the names Teotihuacán, Chapultepec, Xoxomilco off my tongue on summer visits to Mexico City. These words felt monumental. But the truth was, I liked how the words felt in my mouth. They were magic: if you peeled away the letters, in their places rose Where the Gods Were Born, Hill of the Grasshopper and Land of Flowers.

There were names that caused me pain, too, like gordita , little chubby one. A roll of sound I knew very well, starting with the guttural "g," a rolling r, the vowels sandwiched between things soft and sharp, ending with a slap. That word haunted me. When I was called it, I felt as though it wanted to eat me. The husband of one of my mother's friends, a short, balding man, always said it with a steak knife gleam in his eyes.

I am Latina, but I am not that kind of Spanish speaker who can let go and allow those beautiful, open vowel and thrilling rrr sounds to roll off her tongue with ease and brio.

English is my native tongue. It rises from my lips, flows from my pen and floats through my dreams. I am a writer, fluent in this other world of sounds.

That's how it is. Así es.

It was my mother who insisted on speaking English. Growing up in Chicago in the late 30s and 40s, she was harassed for being a "Spic" and for being "the other." And she did not want that for her kids.

And so I grew up in a household where, even though my father was born and raised in Mexico, English was the dominant language. But when my father spoke Spanish, I understood him. So did my three brothers and sister. My father's temper was a persuasive motivator. The last thing any of us wanted was to get caught staring at him, completely baffled by what he was yelling. Our home's landscape could change from the soft sounds of mijo and mijita, my little son and daughter, to the roar of hínquese! -- kneel! -- in a flash, and you had to be ready to respond appropriately.

But my father's crusade to make his children bilingual was fierce, and he spent thousands of dollars in his effort. His investment was a big joke on my mother's side of the family. My father bankrolled Saturday morning Spanish classes with the nuns at the Cordi-Marian Sisters, summer school in Guadalajara, where my mother's parents had retired, and multiple language lessons in between.

My plan was to master el español so I studied it in high school and all through college. I attended La Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City the summer I turned twenty. My brothers picked it up here and there. My sister studied French.

It is my fear of mispronouncing words and using the wrong tense that trips me up. I had to be perfect for my father, a desire I aimed for until the day he died. He did not award stars or a pat on the back for trying to get it right. He attacked my mistakes by teasing me and calling me a blockhead, cabrona . Needless to say, the pressure turned my mind to mush and incapacitated my tongue. My face and ears would burn with frustration and fury. The palms of my hands left wet stains on my jumpers and slacks.

To bolster my confidence, within the last 15 years I've taken classes in conversation and literature at the Instituto Cervantes where instructors are from Spain and countries throughout the Americas. I loved every minute, especially Delia's classes. I checked my fear at the door and joined the party, a fiesta that seduced my tongue into frolicking among conjugations and tenses and through lush vocabulary fields.

More recently I have immersed myself in the story of Malintzin, Hernán Cortés's interpreter. She has been reviled for centuries and shoulders much of the blame for the Spaniards' conquest of Mexico. When my father heard she was the subject of my historical novel, he asked, "What are you writing about her for?"

Because I have to know her! Who was this woman who spoke Nahuatl -- the language of the Aztecs -- Maya, and Spanish? How was she able to bridge two fiery worlds? Language was her salvation and yet it was also her doom. I knew a little something about that.

My quest has not been an easy one, for Malintzin left us no words or writings of her own. And yet she lives. I hear her during the day and in the dark of night whispering her story to me.

I am a child of the red, white, and blue with dreams of what is possible still shining like starlight in my adult's eyes. And deep in my soul stands a gold-tipped eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a serpent. Así es. That's how it is.