mural of mexican men and women crouched down and looking over their shoulder

Belonging and Accents: Salvadoran Diaspora in Mexico and the U.S.

We are not born with accents, yet accents and dialects are tied to region, nationalities, and class. Like many immigrants to the United States, I didn’t know I had to declare my nationality every time I introduced myself for the first time. At school, at work, at a party, I heard myself saying “I’m from Mexico, I grew up in La Frontera.” My accent, no doubt, revealed my outsider status, my otherness. Yet, in the frequent explanations I felt I had to give, my story was incomplete.

Since moving to the United States, I also told the story of how my family moved to Mexico from El Salvador, when I was just an infant. Quickly trying to fit in to avoid curiosity from the locals, my family began the process of erasing—completely—their Salvadoran identity, including their accent. I later found out that my name had also been slightly changed to fit more with the Mexican tradition of having the name María as part of girls’ names. My family arrived in a Mexican region unaccustomed to Central Americans, where everyone without a norteño accent was an outsider. According to my mother, the only word they had to get me to change was the word “pacha” to “biberón” (bottle), since that is the only word that might have identified me as a foreigner. My mom and my brothers do not have a Salvadoran accent. It was only a few months ago that it struck me as source of pain. Not the pain experienced when learning a foreign language, not the pain of trying to sound out the words as native speakers, not the pain of mastering a second or third language, it was the pain of erasure that struck me as cruel.

My mom gave up so much for my brothers’ safety, who, at the young age of 10, would have been recruited as boy soldiers. My father moved us to Mexico, but did not live with us much. He was often away working different jobs, and when my parents eventually divorced, he moved to California. His accent never changed; he never stayed long enough to change it. He carried his Salvadoran identity outwardly. For my brothers and my mother, the process of becoming Mexican was fast, and, I imagine, traumatic. I vaguely remember one time, when one of my brothers had an impulsive outburst and blamed my parents for removing him from El Salvador. I also remember how, when we all became U.S. citizens, one of my brothers began to say he wasn’t Mexican. I felt confused because, for me, Mexico is and was the only country I’d known. I didn’t quite grasp why my brother rejected Mexico, but I understand now that although he was forced to leave El Salvador behind, he never stopped missing it. In my view, I am a Mexican who happened to be born in El Salvador, yet I understand that I am a part of the many Salvadorans living in diaspora, prompted by the country’s civil unrest, poverty and violence.

My first major move was from Mexico to California to live with my father for a few months, and what was noticeable then was my lack of a Salvadoran accent. My father’s friends experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance when I was introduced as his daughter and used words and phrases like “órale,” “mande” and “¿Qué onda?”[1] while he used words like “guineo,” “chele,” “púchica,” “cipote,”[2] etc.  I remember comments about how “los mexicanos” did or said this or that and thinking, “wait a minute, I am ‘los mexicanos,’ did you forget that?” I also had a friend who made it her mission to remind me that I was Salvadoran. Whenever she talked about Mexicans, I reminded her that I was one of them. She would then quickly remind me that I was salvadoreña. She was from Nicaragua, and perhaps she wanted me to assert our kinship as Central Americans. This, I find, is a common feeling when we are in a country that is not our own. At that time, her insistence was more annoying than restorative, because I had never considered that I was anything other than Mexican. Even when I was old enough to recognize that my grandmother and father had similar accents—and that they were completely different than mine—I never questioned my origin or how our differences spoke of a part of me that I didn’t know existed. I realize now that in my many explanations of my national origin, I was beginning to gather the missing parts of my life story.

As an immigrant, I am fully aware of the second-class status many occupy in this country due to low socio-economic standing, limited education, immigration status, and nationality. We brown people in the United States know a thing or two about how the color of our skin often threatens our safety or sabotages our rightful place at the table. Yet, in places like Mexico, whether we accept it or not, we are unwilling to admit that we have our own biases about the race, class and education of those among us, foreign or not.

I am very aware of how Central Americans immigrants are treated in Mexico, but I didn’t learn this first hand; I had, after all, become Mexican. Ironically, I learned it abroad in my Latin American studies classes in the United States. In fact, less than 10 years ago I read about El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador and experienced a mix of anger and sadness, like when, as a young child in Mexico, I learned about the War of the North American Invasion in my history class. Mexico and other powerful and larger Latin American countries celebrate their independence from Spain, while oppressing their own indigenous communities, and immigrants from other countries. Indeed, many Central Americans, in their journey to the North, settle in Mexico for a few months or years until they have enough money—or courage—to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Because of their undocumented status, Central Americans in Mexico are unprotected, subject to police harassment, and in constant fear of deportation. Echoing a friend who recently spent a year in central Mexico, in Mexico it’s hard to be different. The fear of being “culturally outed” is what drove my family to never speak of their memories, or the family and friends they left behind. Their fear kept them from teaching me about their world, about their past. I don’t blame them, I understand. There were stories about my mother’s childhood and her family’s tiendita, about my grandfather’s car body shop, her great-grandmother’s many husbands, and how she met my father. There were stories about their brief time in California, before I was born, but never stories about how she missed her foods, the beach, holidays and her mother. I understood the sorrow in her silence differently the first time I moved 2000 miles away from her and I missed her smell, her foods, and even her regaños. Missing her was visible, it was tangible. I don’t remember her sadness for her country, her longing for her family, it was all suppressed. Are the memories too painful to bring back? I don’t ask.

In my family, I am the only one with who doesn’t remember living in El Salvador; however, looking back I recognize the moments, the whispers, the practices that my mom kept for me, as if she was planting her loroco seeds in my young soul. Even the few things that my mom never mastered—making flour tortillas, Mexican tamales, learning the national anthem—were a signal that she had not lost all of her identity. Unconsciously, I feel like I’ve been planting those seeds in my daughters who have talked about El Salvador on cultural days at school and given presentations about the Salvadoran flag and how to make pupusas. Cooking a few traditional Salvadoran dishes is how I carry on my mother’s memories of her country, those that she dared to keep. Sometimes I worry that I haven’t taught my daughters enough about Mexico, but they know plenty. For example, the Spanish they speak is Mexican Spanish. Yet, at their young age, they have already heard and felt the rejection directed at Mexicans, and how “Mexican” is often a synonym for undocumented—let’s face it, they hear illegal not undocumented. In fact, the day after the 2016 presidential elections, my oldest was asked by one of her classmates if she was undocumented. The attitudes they’ve witnessed towards Mexicans, I assume, is why they choose to talk about El Salvador in Ohio. It’s unexpected, it’s unique—but not uncomplicated. I want to honor my mom’s past and my daughters’ future forever.

In the process of recovering and learning more about my Salvadoran roots, which my daughters have claimed as their own, I now see the way my mother tried to hold on to some of her own roots: food. Every Christmas and New Year’s we ate pavo salvadoreño, salpicón, and tamales wrapped in plantain leaves—the foods of my holidays are the foods of her memories. It is what I carry with me and what I give to my daughters on holidays. I might never be able to feel fully Salvadoran, but I don’t have to. I am a mezcla of cultures: Mexican, Salvadoran and Midwestern U.S. Latina.

[1] Órale is a Mexican slang that denotes approval or encouragement. Mande literally means “command me,” but Mexicans use it to mean “excuse me?” ¿Qué onda? means “What’s up?”

[2] Guineo means banana in El Salvador and other countries. Chele is a white person in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Púchica is used in El Salvador and other Central American countries to express surprise. Cipote means child.

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Photo of Mural on Wall of SPARC in Venice, CA by claumoho. CC BY 2.0

Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, Heritage Language, Digital Oral History, and service-learning. She attends yearly conferences to give workshops and presentations on these topics.

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