Je ne sais pas/No lo sé

        The bus picks me up outside a Taco Bell, which ironically sits across the street from an authentic taqueria. The doors open and the smell of marijuana wafts over me. I sit towards the back of the bus, sling my French textbook over my knee, and begin to scribble down words.
        Je veux-- I want. Tu veux—you want. Nous voulons—we want.
        In the corner, in cursive letters, is my name: Rodriguez. Three syllables, nine letters, four vowels, five consonants. I hate it.
        The bus runs in a straight shot down the street. At each stop, the usual assortment boards: homeless people who promptly fall asleep, single mothers whose children stomp their light-up shoes. The bus gets louder when students from the high school and the community college step on.
        Other Rodriguez-es, Juarez-es, Castillo-s, Peña-s. The girls huddle, talking chisme. They compare pictures of cupcake-shaped quinceñera dresses. They praise and bemoan their mothers. The boys wear crucifixes over black graphic t-shirts where pinup girls undress. They holler to each other in Spanish.
        The totality of my Spanish knowledge comes from Dora the Explorer—Hola, vámonos-- and the translated signage ubiquitous in every California department store. Jugetes—toys. Niños-- boys. Pan—bread. In my textbook they are jouets, garçons, pain.
        A block before my stop, the students get off. Only as they walk away do I recognize them from math class. They go down a street full of broken bottles and cigarette butts. The street my mother wouldn’t let me walk down as a child.
        Our house is paltry, compared to where some of my white friends live: single story, with a yard too small for a pool. But a flat screen TV, my father’s pride and joy, sits in our living room on its mahogany stand.
        Next door, our neighbors pile beer bottles by the side of the house. Salsa music blasts from the windows. I try to make out the lyrics.
* My grandparent’s house is always dark. Lace curtains shield the windows. Piles of deformed stuffed animals and dusty books flank the floral-print couch. The books bear titles like Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche and The Farce of Evolution. For refreshments, we are offered black olives, stale tortilla chips, and flat soda. The television plays mostly static. Grammie flits around the kitchen in a blue mumu and a butterfly necklace. She might say ten words to the four of us grandchildren, if we are lucky. For our part, we cling to our books and our games and do not seek her out. A bit of trivia: Grammie calls herself Irish, but we suspect she’s really English. Sometimes, Grandpa will sit by us, crumple a napkin in his brown hand, and clear his throat. We lift our heads. Como estas, m’ijo? He asks my brother. He has asked every time he sees us, since my brother made an offhand comment about Spanish class. Grandpa rattles off a string of words and my brother looks at him with wide, blue, Irish eyes. He asks my sister if she bought pepper spray for college. He asks me nothing. He smells like old person and soap. He has birthday dinners at Hometown Buffet. When my little cousin Titus arrives, Grandpa runs to his side. He stays there all evening as Titus rambles about video games and karate. He plays fighting games and beats up the female characters, muttering Die, girl! Je veux. Je veux un grand-père et une grande-mère qui m’aime.
* I ask one of my friends—last name Moreno, with a passion for Diego Rivera—if it would be culturally insensitive for me to decorate my jack-o-lantern like a sugar skull. He says something like, Go for it, it’s your culture too. I remind him that I’m Spanish. Dia de los Muertos is Mexican. In history class, a PowerPoint on Pancho Villa turns into my classmates joking about la chancla. Nothing brings Hispanics together like the shared experience of being beaten with a sandal. Mr. Henderson jokingly asks me if I’ve ever been hit with a chancla. My mom is Jewish, I say. Jewish mothers only hurt you emotionally. Usually, when Mr. Henderson’s tongue stumbles over foreign words, I correct him. But when my classmate Genesis imitates her abuela, I foolishly ask: Why does she pronounce it Hen-esis? Je suis une gringa stupide.
* For Christmas, instead of their usual dollar-store finds, my grandparents decide to buy us all personalized pens. There wasn’t one with Phoebe on it, so they get me one that says Faith. I try to write with it, but it just digs into the paper. My mother tries to help in the kitchen. Grammie yanks the casserole dish from her hands, as if they were filthy, and gives it to my aunt. As the sky goes dark, our books are finished, our games glow low-battery red, and my dad is still talking to Grandpa about cars and politics. Mom sits biting her lips. After we finally leave, she spends the car ride home with a shiny, pink nose. Grandpa, the cheapest of gift-givers, buys himself classic cars. At home, Dad watches car shows and 1950s war movies and conservative pundits.
* My mother’s family didn’t immigrate in a straight line. Between the Russian Empire and America, there was France. They worked as tailors. As a child, I imagined them in a spacious shop at the top of an apartment building. Periodically, they’d look away from silk and taffeta and peek out the window at the Eiffel Tower. Nine years old, armed with my fairy tale, I started checking out French books from the library. I spent my nights listening to lessons with my Hello Kitty CD player. Je veux, je veux, je veux.
* My mother tells me to apply for diversity scholarships. It’s the Midwest, she reasons. You’re diverse for the Midwest. As I fill out my application I stare at a question. What is your race/ethnicity? Check all that apply. My mouse hovers by the boxes for minutes on end. I wince as I click “Hispanic.” C’est faux! Ce n’est pas vrai! I imagine the admissions staff looking at that checked box, reading my three syllable, nine letter name. A picture forms in their mind, scrapbooked from images of Frida Kahlo, Sandra Cisneros, and Sonia Sotomayor. If I sent them a picture of myself it would look like this: pale girl, her face a copy of her mother’s, trying to get her tongue to trill over the Rs in her name. Thinking what a beautiful language it is in other people’s mouths. Yo quiero—I want. Tú quieres—you want. Nosotros queremos—we want.

By Phoebe Rodriguez