Years ago, an international event found me in Anaheim, California and one day I went sight-seeing with my colleagues from Mexico, where I live. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant/ cafeteria, where we selected items before paying. I was the last one from my group in line, and was flabbergasted when the Chinese cashier spoke to me in Spanish. Obviously, despite my very Anglo-Saxon looks, she realized I was with the Mexicans and was well-prepared to attend us. It was then that I realized how important Spanish was in California.
Recently, family connections have brought me to southern California again. It’s easy to forget I’m in the States when every other person seems to be speaking Spanish. Amazingly, Hispanics now make up 39% of the state’s population (Texas comes in a close second place with 38%) and Spanish is the second most spoken language.
Names of cities, streets, and housing complexes are more often than not Spanish. Sometimes the pronunciation used is influenced by English (like “Los Angeles”), but a number of names are said in a more “Spanish” way (“La Jolla”).
Turn on the radio and, besides the usual variety of music in English, you can find Hispanic pop, cumbia, norteño music, what have you.
Architecture is another indication of California’s Hispanic roots. Most outstanding are the old missions such as San Juan Capistrano with their thick adobe walls, courtyards and colonial churches. One also sees an abundance of terracotta tiles on roofs, or imitations thereof, as well as other Spanish-inspired details such as arches and cupolas in malls and elsewhere.
Palm trees are often associated with Mexico and its beaches. It surprised me to find so many palm trees in California, more than I’d seen in my life! Maguey and other cacti, eucalyptus trees, bougainvillea bushes, chaparral scrub… these and more are also found in the land of the Aztecs.
The Prevalence of Spanish
English is the second language most studied around the world, and one purpose is to visit countries like the United States. However, Latin American visitors whose English is limited have little problem getting around in California, as service personnel are often Hispanic. Signs in stores and museums are often bilingual. Hispanic churches and organizations abound. For immigrants, education and health facilities generally offer services in Spanish as well.
Though Taco Bell fare isn’t quite Mexican at all, there are countless food trucks, fast-food joints and restaurants catering to those who want a more authentic experience, from “tacos de asada” to “churros”. Grocery stores tend to have an aisle or section for Hispanic items. Mexican groceries offer a variety of chiles, piñatas, candies with chile, “masa” for making tamales, fruit for Mexican Christmas “ponche”, or the special “rosca” or bread ring (adorned with dried fruit) for Kings’ Day on January 6th. Not only edibles are imported from Mexico. Those who miss their favorite laundry soap can find it, “no problema”.
A neighborhood near where family lives is almost exclusively Hispanic. They told me I could find Mexican-style corn on the cob like the kind sold on many street corners “back home”. Sure enough, one day we headed over there and tracked down the “moveable feast”. In Spanish, I ordered several “elotes” and the man asked whether I wanted Mexican-style corn or sweet corn. Much as I love yellow sweet corn, for me true “elotes” must be the white, less sweet corn, impaled on a stick, then slathered with mayo, grated dry cheese and chile. Yes!
“Mexico” All Over the Place
There are places where the Mexican ambience is even stronger than elsewhere, such as Plaza Olverita en L.A. (like a typical Mexican tourist market with wandering musicians, too) or the city of Santa Ana, where family like to eat at a great taco truck.
Once, upon attending a birthday party hosted by a family of Mexican origin, I noticed an Asian woman and her daughter arriving; I suspected they felt overwhelmed and outnumbered at first. Little by little a few of those present switched to English to include them, but I could imagine that woman wondering if knowing English wasn’t enough to survive in southern California!
Although there are many similarities between Mexico and California, the American style of life, malls, freeways and much more remind visitors that they are indeed in the USA. Other ethnic groups are also present, with their languages, places of worship, cuisine, and dress. Still, one can never forget that this highly-populated state (number one!) was indeed once “Alta California” and part of Mexico.