On native languages and hometowns


Spanish is my native language. That is the language my parents spoke to each other when they fell in love, the language in which I said my first word, the language I learnt to love. It is the epicenter of my identity. However, identity is a complicated matter, especially if you come from a complicated place...

I was probably not even a year old the first time I traveled to a country other than the one where I was born. In those days, it wasn't much of a hassle to cross the border to San Diego, and so we did it all the time. Sunday mornings meant ten people cramped in my Great Grandmother's tiny apartment in the corner of California, eating the traditional Mexican breakfast she would cook for us.

McDonalds was a natural element of my geography before McDonalds actually spread to every hole in the world. On Sundays, I would get five dollars for my "Domingo" (my allowance: I came to know about exchange rates at a very young age)... and probably the first hundred movies and books that I came to know were in English.

My family is a combination of people who came from the center of the Mexican Republic and people who were native inhabitants of California, before California actually belonged to the United States, 163 years ago. For that reason, I was born with the right to a dual citizenship in a place where I am still to discover the culture I belong to. The languages for these two countries (or at least the languages de facto for these two countries) came naturally to me.

I have had the opportunity to live in and adapt to different places. I grew up bilingual and bicultural in a territory of Mexico's political division, even though I've always said that Tijuana (my hometown) is an in-between place that doesn't quite know where it belongs.

If you were to plan day trips to each of the opposite borderline communities, you would indeed catch a glimpse of the differences sustained by the imaginary line that divides them. We share the same weather, the same flora and the same fauna. We can even use the same currency. You could say that the fundamental difference is the economic level of each region, but of course, it goes much further than that.

True, I know San Diego like I was born here. I love how there's always a new place to discover a delicious meal, the feeling of driving on a well known freeway at 80mph (Oops... I meant 65) and thinking that it will take you anywhere you want. I love the open spaces, the beaches, the tall buildings, the shopping centers (a true San Diegan will call them malls,) Balboa Park, getting the munchies at four in the morning and knowing something will be open, leaving the house in my pjs, and how people don't understand what cold really feels like. But for me, San Diego wouldn't be as lovely it if I couldn't escape from it every once in a while.

I love my Tijuana, because ironically, there's no place I feel safer. I love the feeling of freedom, not the kind of freedom you read about in books and treaties, but the one that you can actually identify in real life. I love that the city possesses a beauty that is hard to understand, one that you must look for and keep like a priceless gem; a gem so special that will only expose itself to those willing to look for it. I love the people, the constant struggle to define existence, the contrasts.

One thing I am certain of: it was the combination of elements, the historical disposition of events and my love for the undefined, heterogeneous, and ever-growing existence that persists in this area, that which made me end up here, in a profession of multiculturalism and languages.

Maybe I am spoiled.  Because I can go back and forth, because I am a wanderer and I feel, precisely, that San Diego is a city where wanderers like to settle down every once in a while. But to tell the truth, one of my favorite things about living here is that I am able to adopt contrasting cultural roles and meet in between every so often. All in the same geographic space. And then I'll go to work, and cheat time and space by working alongside colleagues in France, Portugal, Germany, Russia, Argentina... you name it.

Spanish is my native language and English comes very close after it. I was born in one city, but I grew up in two. My geographic locations, as my languages, have been a trampoline to the world.

I am sure that there is certain warmth in belonging to a specific place with a specific culture, language and traditions.

But to be honest, I like jumping on this crazy trampoline. I just love it.

Tania Varela