The Accent

Melissa Rivera-Jovel

photo by Mandy Aw

Justin always made fun of the way I say his name. The strong "j" turned into a soft "y", and all my friends could hear the difference. My ears were the only ones that couldn't tell the difference between "Justin" and "Yustin." Instead of saying his name, I simply touched his shoulder. If my classmates asked me to say so, I would put their hair on their face and move away. Although I was putting on a strong face when avoiding saying his name, I couldn't hide my shame.

In fourth grade, I realized that the words "share" and "chair" are not supposed to sound the same. My best friend sat next to me and pronounced each word slowly. He looked at his lips and tried to imitate his movements and recreate the sounds coming out of his mouth. We didn't move from our seats until I learned that "sh" was softer than "ch."

Year after year, I improved my accent. I practiced where I should put my tongue in relation to my teeth and if my lips had to be relaxed or if they had to form a tight "o" on my face. I was able to hide my accent completely in time for high school. Well, I thought I hid it completely. 

Up until high school, I had always been around other Spanish speakers. They did make fun of my accent, but at least it could be lost in the sea with other people’s speaking quirks. In high school, I was surrounded by people who did not have a noticeable accent. At times, I found myself sticking out like a fish out of water. My classmates didn't know it, but every time they laughed or pointed out something strange about my way of pronouncing some words, like “champagne” or “yo-yo,” I wanted the ground to swallow me right there.

The only class where I felt safe and confident was my Spanish class. My mother did not believe in my writing and speaking abilities, evident when she brought me to school over the summer to tell the principal that I did not belong in a level three class. Clearly, she was wrong. I thrived in that class. I earned high grades on quizzes and tests, and I was able to help the other students in my class. Another aspect of the class that made me feel comfortable was that it was a space for me to share my culture without feeling like an outsider; it was something that was respected and sometimes asked for. We all made mistakes, but no one made fun of the different accents in the room. I believed that at last, I found a place--and a language--that could be my safe place.

Again, I was too confident. I've always been aware of my accent in English, but after years of pushing my Spanish aside, I couldn't get rid of my Spanish “agringada”. Yes, sometimes I get embarrassed when I speak English, but my lips tremble every time my family in Honduras puts me to the test. I am proud to be Hispanic and Honduran, but when I visited my family this past February, I felt out of place. I felt helpless. They surrounded me like I was a circus act. They would deliberately use words and phrases that I did not know, just to see me lost and confused. If I did ask for clarification, they would laugh in my face. It didn't matter that I was taking advanced Spanish classes at my school; I couldn't speak catracha enough to be accepted.

My biggest struggle has not just been the way I speak. My identity as a Honduran-American has been difficult to define. I did not want to sacrifice my culture just to fit in with people who were not children of immigrants or close to their family's culture. However, I also did not want to stay stuck in the unprogressive, misogynistic mindset related to Honduras.

For now, I am happy being the result of these two worlds. Combining my cultures and showing it off is what makes me unique, and it is what makes me so proud to be myself. My big, curly hair stands out in the crowd, but not without the blue and pink hair dye that makes the older Honduran women in my country uncomfortable. People can stare while I dance, but it no longer stops me, whether I am dancing Punta or Hip Hop.

 

I used to be ashamed of my accent, and everything else about being Honduran-American, but now it is one of my greatest prides.