As I described in an earlier post, when we lived in New Mexico I used to enjoy chatting in Spanish with our neighbors from Argentina. Remarkably, despite my passion for the Spanish language, this was practically the only opportunity I had to speak Spanish during our ten years living in this substantially Spanish-speaking area. Why?
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Especially in the first few years, I would occasionally try to engage Spanish speakers in conversation. The inevitable response: English.
It wasn’t for lack of skill. My Spanish was a bit rusty at the time, but still proficient.
The problem was, rather, culture. New Mexico bills itself as a land of three cultures: Hispanic, Native American, and “Anglo”. The local Hispanics call themselves norteños, meaning “people of the North” (as opposed to the South, i.e. Mexico), and are proud that many can trace their ancestry directly to Spain. A substantial minority have Basque roots, which makes sense if you keep in mind the importance of sheep farming in both areas.
The Native American population of New Mexico belongs either to the various Pueblo tribes or to the Navajo Nation. And “Anglo”? Well, that basically means “none of the above”, whether you’re a white Jewish girl from New York, a graduate student from France, or an African American.
For the most part, this three-culture mix was a positive aspect of our life in New Mexico. We enjoyed visiting pueblos and exploring ancient Anasazi ruins (especially Tsankawi), eating northern New Mexican food, especially breakfast burritos and blue corn chicken enchiladas with green chile, and just living in a part of the country that, like San Antonio or New Orleans, didn’t feel like the garden-variety American melting pot.
But culture was also a barrier. Nobody would speak Spanish with me simply because I was an Anglo (or angla, I guess). Every time I tried, I was crossing a forbidden line.
The only time I managed to speak Spanish with actual norteños was when a colleague who had married into a local Hispanic family invited us to his annual Christmas party. His entire extended family of in-laws was there, and we feasted on dishes like posole (fortunately, this was before I was trying to live as a strict vegan):
Thanks to my colleague’s imprimatur I was allowed to storm the cultural barriers for that one night, and happily chatted in Spanish with several of his in-laws. Qué gusto — y ¡qué feliz Navidad!