Opinion: From Dallas to Albion: Language’s Importance as an Afro-Latine

The author, Dallas first-year Naima Davenport, poses in front of Wesley Hall sporting traditional cowboy boots from Texas, made in Mexico. In Texas, it is normal to see people walking around in boots similarly to how athletic shoes are more common in Michigan (Photo illustration courtesy of Kamron Jones).

I don’t think there has been one moment during my time in Michigan that I haven’t been conscious of how I talk; of how my distinct dialect impacts how I’m perceived up here. 

I grew up in Dallas, based in Oak Cliff; a huge neighborhood spread over a large portion of my city. 

It’s hard for me to really know if I’ve ever really left its outskirts. 

The parts of Oak Cliff I’ve lived in – around Lake Cliff, Kessler, Kiest and Rosemont – have always been predominantly Hispanic, specifically Mexican. Many first-generation families come from places such as Tijuana, Guadalajara and Guanajuato, Mexico. 

I grew up navigating both Mexican-American and Black cultural norms; the child of a Chicana mother and a Black father. When my parents divorced in my last year of middle school, it further divided both my household and my dialect. 

Language and Growing Up

My Mother is not a fluent Spanish speaker. I think it’s safer to say my father speaks more Spanish than her. 

My mother’s mom, my Thilla, has always spoken a mixture of what I’d define as both Spanglish and Tex-Mex English. She speaks Spanish, but oftentimes speaks only slang to me. Sometimes she’d suck in a bit of air through her teeth before saying, “Que la,” almost like a reflex to emphasize her frustration or surprise. 

“Mija” is a term of endearment used by most adults that shows a sign of authority, seniority and respect. When my Thilla says it, I know she is talking to me.

 “Proper” Spanish is not something that has ever been prevalent in my life. I learned what I call “Tejano” Spanish, a dialect spoken by Mexican-Americans who live in southern Texas. This dialect isn’t limited to a solely Spanish vocabulary, but rather it is fluid, moving between English phrases while mixing in Spanish words. 

Navigating and maintaining both is something I often struggle with.

I remember going to get food with three of my cousins, all fully Mexican and appearing so. I asked my cousin Joaquin if he could help me figure out how to properly order my tacos since I don’t speak fluent Spanish. I worried that my broken, choppy version of it would probably annoy the staff and make them assume I wasn’t Mexican.

He walked me through it before ordering for himself and our other cousins, Elaina and Isabel. When it was my turn, the lady barely gave me a moment before switching to English for me. Joaquin and I laughed as the waitress and I battled between broken English and Spanglish before I defeatedly spoke entirely English. 

These different and very distinguishable dialogues mean the world to me. They are a huge part of my character and impact how I walk through my life on the daily. Language has such an inherent, unconscious value that those who don’t think about it consciously fail to consider. Those of us aware of its value move through the world differently; not tied down by linguistics, proper nouns or the need to point out people’s accents.

Language and Speaking in Texas

Texan Mexicans have a distinct style of Spanish. It’s hard to define; though it’s much easier to identify it once you hear the Spanish we speak and compare it to a Chicano’s from Chicago.

Our language is hard and weird on the tongue. It’s unique and has double meanings many outside our region might misinterpret or fail to grasp at all. Most times, if you don’t speak the dialect correctly, a majority of Mexicans will dismiss you altogether.

An example I always think of is “Chongo,” which doesn’t really mean anything in “proper” Spanish; but if someone with long hair asked me for one, I’d know they want to borrow a hair tie. 

A Selena Quintanilla mural on Jefferson Avenue in Dallas. For many Mexicans and Tejanos, Selena is an important figure because of her language style impacting music (Photo courtesy of Donald Rose).

Though, my Spanish-speaking experiences are not the only significant parts of my language. There are other parts of language crucial to consider when discussing who I am.

Black Southerners speak a dialect of English that combines African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but also has significant ties to their Texan heritage. This voice flows almost without pause and to the untrained ear, might sound all like one word.

They have a Southern twang that is identifiable off the muscle. The pace and rhythm we speak in is fast and deep. The “R’s” sound like “Argh,” and it is really something special. Words like “Orange” become “Arr-ange” as Texans tend to emphasize the “R” and its sound at the start.

For some things, if you know, you know. For example, “Bless their soul” takes on an entirely new meaning besides a simple prayer when said in response to someone saying something disagreeable, yet not argument-worthy.  

Beyond Texas’s borders, I think of “Outkast” when I think of Black Southerners as a whole. Atlanta-based rappers, like Big Boi and Andre 3000, have a rapping style that makes their accents a focal point of their music. “Call” becomes “Cawl” and “Nah” might sound more like “Nawl.”

These Black Southerner and Tejano Spanish-English blends mean the world to me. Everything about them is beautiful: From the way they sound to the vast and numerous ways you can interpret them. 

If I hadn’t been socialized to think and speak between these two, it would have drastically impacted my character and the way I communicate. I might not have learned to be as understanding of language differences if I hadn’t had first-hand experience with those types of interactions. 

These languages mean so much to me as a Texan because moving between them is overwhelmingly common in our state. Even within Texas, they vary depending on how urban and rural the environment is.

However, linguistics change when you leave the state.

Language and Navigating Michigan

Exploring aspects of both languages that I understand has become harder since I left my home. Learning the Spanish I grew up speaking while not being there, directly connected to it, has been difficult. 

My first time coming to Michigan was to move here for college, so this is all new to me. There are differences not only in language but in social norms as well. Certain things I am used to doing take on different interpretations in Michigan than they would in Texas.

I am always, at all times, code-switching to cater toward different parts of my language identity in Michigan; a problem that was lessened in Texas, where my dialect didn’t mark me as an outsider, since I was surrounded by people who spoke like me.

My first semester, I was telling a friend of a friend a story. Quickly and excitedly, I rushed through the sentence. This guy stopped me mid-conversation to point out that when I talk too fast, it’s hard to distinguish the vowels in my words. 

In Michigan, I sound and look nothing like the majority of my peers. Michigander lingo is special in its own sense; I recognize the weight their lingo has, but it’s not crucial to who I am as an Afro-Latine. 

I’ve always been conscious of my differences in language. It wasn’t until I came to Michigan that I noticed the big differences and gaps in my conversation – and not just in spoken word, but social conventions, too.

Something I have learned to take less at face value is staring. Where I’m from, staring is frowned upon, and can sometimes, in certain contexts, be taken as a challenge. 

In Michigan, people stare just because without much real rhyme or reason. Most times it isn’t malicious either – just staring for the sake of staring. This is something I have had to adjust to. 

It is almost comically easy to distinguish a Texan in a sea of Michiganders, regardless of race. To most, we are thought of as “country,” adapting a lingo that, to outsiders, might be described as improper. 

Southern dialect is diverse and vast, and being a Texan from an urban yet predominantly Hispanic community requires juggling various dialects. 

In the time I continue to spend in Michigan, my only hope is that I keep my language. I don’t ever want to lose the parts of me that sound like my dad’s voice or have my Thilla’s accent. That language has grown roots – instilled inside my head and heart – and has become trivial to who I am. I might adapt some of the language I learn from those around me but they will never uproot this piece of who I am.

About Naima Davenport 6 Articles
Naima Davenport is a first-year from Dallas, Texas majoring in English at Albion College. They enjoy reading as well as jewelry making. You can contact Naima at knd11@albion.edu

1 Comment

  1. Naima your essay is so beautiful it beautifully captures of the intricate dance between identity and culture and the journey from Texas to Michigan. It’s a testament to the power of language in shaping who we were and how we navigate the world. I love love love it!!!!!!!

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