Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (TYF): I don’t really know too much about the ancestors before my grandparents. I would ask, “When did we come here?” and my grandfather would always say “Desde siempre hemos estado aquí. We’ve been here forever.” They were, um, people of the land.
And the one thing that was instilled was traditions that were related to the land. When I was a little boy, they had a ceremony. The umbilical cord they had taken away when you were born, it was in a little box. It was like a shriveled, little, black thing. But you got to pick where you wanted that to be buried. And the ranch was pretty desolate and rocky, but in the middle was this beautiful tree and I pointed to that.
So we walked out there – my grandparents, and my mother, and my dad, and the padrinos and they said, ”This is the place where you’re born, so no matter where you end, this is where you began.”
Antonia Casteñeda (AC): Mhm.
TYF: Before I started first grade, my dad said to me, ”Tú eres Americano, por eso hablas español. You’re an American, that’s why you speak Spanish.” But it wasn’t until I went to elementary school where I began really realizing what being a Mexican American was. First day of school, Ms. Moran, my teacher, said, ”Boys and girls, in this class, we’re all Americans and we’re all going to learn English.” And I raised my hand, ”Ms. Moran, Ms. Moran! My father says I’m an American, that’s why I speak Spanish.” So I got put in the corner.
Later on I got selected as a language monitor and you got to wear a big plaque that said ”Language Monitor” and what you were supposed to do is to spy when you went out during recess on your classmates if they were speaking in Spanish. And so my dad went to school and he said, you know, ”I don’t want my kid to be put in a position where he’s spying on his friends for speaking the language that belongs to us.”
Even though they were very proud of me learning English, he would say, ”Una persona que habla dos idiomas vale por dos. A person who speaks two languages is worth two times the person who speaks only one.” So then I would say, ”Well, I want to learn 100 so that I’ll be worth 100 times,” and he would smile and say, ”Good.” But he was very wise ’cause he was telling me is English is your language and Spanish is language, and you love both.
AC: You need both. You are both.
TYF: Right. Sometimes when I was in New York, you know, I would be sitting there with a book and all of a sudden I would think about my tíos and tías in San Antonio and in Texás and I could feel, like, my ombligo going down the staircase, from my apartment all the way down to that tree because I knew that that’s where I’m from.