Rocky Start at Rocky Point
If someone had asked me to describe myself 15 years ago I probably would have said something along the lines of: “My name is Joelein Mendez. I’m 10 years old. Um, and I love my tamagotchi.” I wouldn’t have said: “I’m Hispanic,” because growing up in a border-adjacent town it seemed everyone was. I wouldn’t have mentioned that I speak Spanish, because the majority of the population, including most of the Caucasian people I knew, also spoke it. And I definitely wouldn’t have said I speak Sonoran-border Spanish, because, at the time, I didn’t know there was a difference.
That difference became known to me while on a family vacation at a popular beach in Mexico called Puerto Peñasco, or — to the gringos — Rocky Point. Being the kind of place that caters to a lot of American tourists, it was no surprise that at breakfast, on our first day there, we were presented with menus printed in English.
On my final perusal of said menu, while my 8-year-old sister decided whether she wanted her eggs “revueltos” or not, I spotted what I deemed at that time to be the breakfast of champions: cereal. The least I could do was remain loyal to the breakfast food that was nice enough to give me a toy every now and then. So when it came my turn to order I closed the menu, smiled, and asked in Spanish for “moiz.”
“Moiz” is a slang term for cereal that comes from the shortening of the name of a Mexican cereal called Maizoro. The waiter just stared at me, looked around nervously, and stared some more. “¿No tienen?” my mom asked pointing at the menu, wondering if I’d have to adjust my choice based on what they had stocked in their pantry. The waiter, looking very apologetic, explained to my mother that what I had just ordered was, in fact, marijuana.
Apparently, somewhere between my hometown and our vacation destination, the word used to describe my morning bowl of lucky charms had been hijacked as a term for pot. My mother was livid. How dare that waiter think I, a child, would order such a thing — from a restaurant; and for breakfast no less. This event, what would eventually be called “the un-Happy Meal”, set the tone for the rest of the day.
If my mother had been more upset, laser beams would have shot out of her eyes and burned the back of my head while she fumed at my breakfast faux pas. I hope this sentence is never taken out of context, but it must be said, ordering drugs for breakfast at ten-years-old changed my life. Until that point, my immediate surroundings had exposed me only to English and Spanish; I didn’t know there could be variations within each of those two categories.
A similar, though less felonious, experience happened to my father-in-law. While in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, he ordered “chicharones” (usually fried, bite-sized pieces of pork rind or pork fat, sometimes with bits of lean meat attached). What he got was an enormous piece of fried pork skin, which he exaggerates as having been 2 feet across.
Though both of those incidents happened in Mexico, they are in no way limited to the Spanish language. If the way we speak is an extension of ourselves, it follows that there are as many variations to a language as there are groups of people who speak it. Whether you order a “pop” when the accepted vernacular is soda, or get confused when someone refers to a pizza as a “pie”–this happened to my sister’s boyfriend–you are experiencing firsthand the beauty of language. It changes and evolves. It lives and breathes. Like a tick, it burrows into the skin and becomes one with its host, each with its own unique strain of linguistic lime disease.
You might be wondering, now at 25, who I am. I am Joelein Mendez. I am a mother. I am a bilingual, Hispanic woman. Um, and I still love my tamagotchi.
Who are you? Has language shaped the person you’ve become?