Immigrant Story

Have I told you about the time I was mistaken for an immigrant?

I was born and raised in the dustbowl of southern California. After graduating high school, I spent two years in the Bedfordshire, England, and three years in San Vito dei Normmani, Italy, before finally settling down in Denver, Colorado in 1988. I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the December of 1993, and I’ve been here ever since, livin’ the life.

As I related in an earlier post, and for reasons I won’t go into here, I took it upon myself to learn to speak Spanish last year. During the spring and summer of 2018, every other sentence that came out of my mouth was en español. I visited taco trucks with my daughter at lunch – she happens to be fluent in Spanish – and attempted to order in my new language. I visited Mexican panaderías. I listened to Spanish-language radio. And most importantly (for this story, anyway), I changed my name on the Starbucks mobile app to Esteban, the Spanish form of my given name, Steven.

Because there are not a whole lot of Estebans that frequent my local Starbucks, all of the baristas got to know me in pretty short order. I was often greeted with, “Hi, Esteban!” or “Good morning, Esteban!” as if I were the Hispanic Norm Peterson, to which I’d reply, “¡Buen día, mi amigo! ¿Cómo estas?”

One particular morning, I arrived a little early after placing my mobile order, and the barista said, “Hey, Esteban! I’m just finishing up your order, it will be ready in just a minute.”

“¡Gracias, mi amigo!” I replied. We then proceeded to make small talk (in English, as he doesn’t speak Spanish) as he continued to prepare my drink.

As I reached across the bar for my finished coffee (venti almond milk latte with seven – seven! – pumps of peppermint, in case you’re looking to get me something for my birthday in April), a hand reached out and grabbed my arm. I turned to face the older woman who had stopped me from getting my life-sustaining bean juice.

“Do you mind if I tell you something?” she asked me.

Well, this is awkward I thought to myself. “Sure, please do!” I said, perhaps a little too energetically.

“I just want to tell you that your English is fantastic, Esteban! You are assimilating very well to your new country. Tell me – how long have you lived here?”

I was floored. Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me was horrified, and part of me was flattered that I’d been mistaken for being Hispanic.

Competing thoughts flooded my brain. Do I tell her the truth? Do I mock her somehow? Do I accept this little microaggression for what it was meant to be – a compliment?

In the end, I decided not to burst her bubble, to let her think she was being a good American citizen by welcoming a foreigner in to her midst.

“A few years, ma’am,” I responded, “and thank you for the compliment!”

“You’re very welcome, “she replied. “You’re doing a great job – have a nice day!”

“Gracias – ¡que tengas un buen dia!” I said to her as I grabbed my coffee and walked out of the shop.

En Español, Por Favor

I had nothing better to do this past summer, so I thought I would learn to speak Spanish.

This desire was driven by a number of things. Having been born and raised in southern California, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Hispanic culture. As I’ve aged (read: mellowed and matured), the “hate” part has completely faded, leaving me with an idealized love of all things Latin American. The music, the accents, the culture – I love it all.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become very interested in my heritage. I knew next to nothing about my biological father’s family (more on this in a future post), and much of what I knew of my mother’s family became more shrouded in mystery the further back you went.

So I sent off my saliva to and waited patiently for the results.

Most of what came back was not surprising – I assumed my mother’s side had come from Europe at some point – Danziger and Boyd are both common European names – and Hardwick screams “British Isles.” What I didn’t expect was the 6% Native American result.

That’s when I started digging, and learned that, for reasons that are obvious if you think about them for a few seconds, Native American results can sometimes be mistaken for Mexican results in certain cases. According to

Not long after humans first appeared in today’s Alaska and the western United States, they had already settled as far south as the tip of modern-day Chile. Then they migrated inland. As settlers, these groups were dramatically successful: In only a few thousand years they had occupied virtually the entire landmass.

Armed with this information, I redoubled my efforts at lifting the veil of my father’s ancestral past.

Thanks to public records and contact with a couple of fifth cousins, I was able to ascertain that my paternal great-grandfather, James Jefferson Santigo Hardwick, was married at least three times. He was born in Missouri in February of 1857, and moved to Mexico sometime between 1870 and 1881.

His first wife, Luisa Aguilar, was from Sonora, Mexico – that’s where they met, married, and lived for many years. When she died twelve years later, my great-grandfather married her sister, Esperanza Aguilar. And when she died six years after that, he married a third sister, Josefina Aguilar.

Josefina J de Jesus Aguilar is my great-grandmother, and the cause of the 6% “Native American” reading in my DNA. I am – proudly – part mexicaño. ¡Viva Mexico!

In addition to these facts, my daughter is fluent in Spanish, having gone through the language immersion program at Eisenhower Elementary School from kindergarten through fifth grade. She continued to study Spanish, with a slight detour into Latin, well into her first year of college. We are now able to communicate in Spanish (albeit at a very basic level), and though I can’t speak for her, I enjoy it very much.

Last March, I stumbled onto an online course called Speed Spanish that is primarily geared toward people anticipating travel to Spanish-speaking countries, and I was off to the races. I completed all three tracks in a matter of a few months, just in time to take a beginning Spanish course at Tulsa Community College. Thanks to Speed Spanish, I was able to excel in this class, and am already making plans to take Spanish II this summer as a break from the marketing and business classes I’ve been taking through Oklahoma State University-Tulsa (go Pokes!)

One of my favorite parts of learning español has been connecting on an entirely different level with friends and acquaintances who speak Spanish. I’ve also made friends from American latina who are trying to learn English – I’ve met quite a few people through various iPhone apps, in fact. I write and speak in Spanish, they do the same in English, and we teach each other – a truly collaborative effort!

What I Learned

Ancestry is a fascinating thing – if you don’t know where you came from and who your ancestors are, the process of discovery and be just as exciting as the discovery itself.

Ah, y español. Estoy aprendiendo a hablar español.