"No? That wasn't any better?" my mother would asked. "Say it one more time."
"Chip, ship, sheep." These three little words had distinct sounds and meanings when I said them. They lost all distinction when my mother would repeat them after me. I laughed. My mother would join in the laughter. I thought of it as a game that my mother and I played frequently. I couldn't understand why it was so hard for her to pronounce the sounds. I couldn't have been over the age of six at the time. She was determined to practice her English and lose her accent.
My mother never had to tell me that her accented English bothered her. At the age of six, I may not have understood this, but as I grew older it became clear. I noticed that when my mother and I were out shopping or at a restaurant inevitably someone would ask her, "Where are you from?" She paused and smiled, then would say "I'm from here." Forcing the person asking the question to either drop it, or probe further, "but you have an accent." If they probed, and they often do, she might add something like, "I'm from Puerto Rico. And Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and I was born a U.S. citizen, so I'm from here." I'm old enough now to know what is behind her indignant response. It's her desire to feel that she belongs. To be recognized for what she is, a U.S. citizen. To not be seen as a foreigner, an immigrant.
My mother moved to Maryland from Puerto Rico at the age of 16. She graduated from high school and college there. She is fluent in English although her speech is accented. I can barely detect her accent. This might be because I was raised by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who all speak English with a Spanish Caribbean accent. I really don't hear their accents anymore, not until someone points it out.
My aunt, my father's sister, is more outspoken about her discomfort with her accent. "It bothers, you know, to have people constantly ask me where I'm from. I've lived in this country since I was twelve!" she'll say. She is now nearly 60.
The English only movement in this country is strong. Over the past year, we've all heard Republican presidential hopefuls speak about changing the official language to English in this country if they win the election. In a recent interview on Univision, Mitt Romney noted that "English is the language of opportunity."
But speaking English in this country doesn't seem to be good enough. You need to be able to speak English with an American accent. Why do we promote such a narrow view?
Maybe my family history explains why I was outraged by Sofia Vergara's apparent complicity with the notion that the way people from South America speak English is funny. In the Emmys this week, Lily from Modern Family asked if someone would translate what Sofia was saying because she couldn't understand her English. It echoes the punch line in the CoverGirl Tone Rehab commercial featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Sofia Vergara, which aired repeatedly during the Emmys. The commercial begins as most CoverGirl advertisements do, with beautiful women selling the secret to youth, beauty and happiness in a jar. The end of this commercial, however, takes an odd turn when Ellen says one of Sofia's lines. Sofia retorts, "That's what I was supposed to say now." Ellen replies "Well, no one can understand you."
I've seen the advertisement several times now and it still makes me cringe.
Sofia Vergara is an Emmy nominated actor and one of the leads in ABC's seven-time Emmy award-winning series "Modern Family." She is the hottest Latina actor of the moment. What do you mean no one can understand what she's saying?
I know that this is supposed to be all in good fun. Ellen and Sofia are both women of comedy. Yet in the current anti-immigrant and anti-Latino climate, the advertisement is highly problematic. It reinforces the stereotypes of the hot-blooded, sexy, spitfire Latina. The one who should be seen, but never heard. The Latina (read immigrant/foreigner) whose speech is so unintelligible, she has no right to speak.
This must be said: Although Vergara has been nominated for "Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series" for three years in a row, she has yet to take home the Emmy, while the show left with four this year. Could it be that the sentiments of disdain expressed by other characters on the show and by Ellen in the commercial echo too closely our nation's true feelings towards immigrants?
It's time for the United States to embrace multilingualism and acknowledge the wonderful linguistic resources in this country. As a country we lose when we don't recognize these linguistic resources as an asset.