I don't mean to pat my own back but when it comes to speaking Spanish I'm not exactly tongue-tied. I grew up in a small town, Santa Paula, that was two-thirds Latino, where even gringos celebrated Cinco de Mayo and the only theater in town played Mexican movies. I didn't know there were English speaking radio stations until I left the county for the first time.
I was weaned on burritos and raised on tortillas. I consider red and green chilies two of the four essential food groups. I can't remember ever going to a birthday party for one of my friends where a pinata was not involved. I picked citrus with the braceros and played on teams where I was the only token white boy. I stayed overnight in the homes of my good friends where neither parent spoke a word of English.
I have never strayed far from my roots. For 20 years I traveled the border states where English was the second language. Even today I live in a town called Los Osos (The Bears) not to be confused with Los Ojos (The Eyes) or Los Banos (The Toilets). The point that I am belaboring is that I really should be fluent in Spanish.
Alas, I am not. But I think I am. I can cuss so well in Spanish I can make a priest blush, but the problem is I have no idea what I'm saying. I took four years of Spanish in school and can still rattle off all the drills. And therein lies the problem. I can reply as to the quality of the peaches in the mercado and give directions to someone lost in a big city but in all my life I've never met a Spanish speaking person who needed advice on buying peaches or was lost. What I could have used was a language drill about billy goats.
I was minding my own business at the small animal auction when I heard a voice from the goat pens. “Does anyone here speak Spanish?” asked the auctioneer.
Like an idiot I said, “Si, senor.” I stepped forward, offering my services, ready to dazzle the small crowd that had gathered with my talented tongue.
The auction owner introduced me to a Spanish speaking man who knew not a word of English yet had clearly taken a liking to a bearded billy goat, whose pen he was standing next to. We howdied in Spanish and I inquired as to the nature of his business.
The auction manager and the billy goat owner were quite impressed with my linguistics but even more so by the fact that someone would actually be interested in buying an old billy goat that the auctioneer was going to have to beg someone to buy. They eagerly asked me what the Mexican man wanted to know.
“He raises goats,” I replied, “and he needs a new billy to breed his nannies. He wants to know if this billy is a breeder?”
“Sure,” said the goat's owner. “This buck will breed your nannies. He is so potent you shouldn't let your kid goats anywhere near him unless you want ‘em bred.”
I then rattled off what I thought were those exact comments and everyone thought I was handier than a Spanish-English dictionary. But I noticed that for the rest of the afternoon the Mexican gentleman did his best to avoid me and when the billy goat entered the auction ring he sat with his arms folded across his chest, not even flinching when the old goat was hammered down for three cents per pound!
After the sale the auctioneer and the billy goat owner wanted to know why the Mexican gentleman refused to “peso little” for an animal that prior to my getting involved he had expressed great interest in. They wondered if something got lost in translation. I assured them that wasn't possible but once I got home I told mi amigo, Eloy, exactly what I said: That the billy would breed his nannies and that he'd better lock up his kid goats if he didn't want them bred.
Eloy looked at me like I was one taco short of a combo plate and laughed. “You told him to lock up his children and that the billy goat would breed his housekeeper.”