My last name is Cortez. I am an ancestor of the Aztec killer—or, at least that’s what my family jokes about. My great-grandfather was from central Mexico. We still make tamales on Christmas Eve. 

With that being said, I can barely speak more Spanish than an elementary school kid watching Dora. No one in my family can. 

When my great-grandfather moved out to California a few decades ago, he didn’t teach his kids a lick of the language. They needed to fit in. They needed to be “American.” 

Looking back now, it makes sense. People can be racist, and Mr. Cortez was fearful for his kids’ lives. 

If it weren’t for these people, I’d be much cooler now. I would love to speak Spanish and actually sound like I’m supposed to have my last name. 

Growing up, my sister and I had a plan. We would go to college and learn the language. We thought it would be the perfect way to honor our heritage and bring back something that was taken away from our family. 

Mostly, we actually wanted to talk in code. 

No one else at the dinner table would know what we were saying. It would have been awesome. We could gossip about our brothers and just annoy whoever else. 

Our plan was set, and I finally went off to college. I minored in Spanish and started taking my first class. I aced the first one, mostly based on learning words and conjugations. “If I can put it on a flashcard,” I thought, “I can learn anything.” I was pumped, fired up. I was learning Spanish! 

Then came the second course: Conversation I. I wasn’t so sure about this one. I couldn’t think of words that fast. What in the world? My classmates were having full conversations with the professor. In Spanish. “Was I put in the wrong class?,” I wondered. I felt like I skipped a step here. 

I was able to somehow slide by all semester with minimal speaking, until the final. We had to answer questions directly from the professor, right in front of him. 

He was looking right at me. He asked the question. How are your parents? 

I froze.

How are my parents? Do I have parents? Who are they? What is “mom” in Spanish? What do I say first? What’s my name? Where am I? 

I spiraled. I freaked out and disconnected the Zoom call without saying a word. He emailed me afterwards and suggested I should contact the Disability Resource Center if I have test anxiety. 

Well, I’m giving up on that dream for now. 

My sister started college this year. Maybe she’ll learn it and teach me a bit. One day we might be able to talk about our family at dinner in code. Wouldn’t that make great-grandpa proud? Maybe not, but it’d be pretty sweet.

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