I can pinpoint the exact moment I decided to not have a southern accent. I was seven years old and going to Witter School in Brawley, California, a small town in Imperial County, close to the Mexican border. A classmate said, “My mama went out to the country to get something.’” He said with a thick accent he’d picked up in the Imperial Valley, and I felt a sense of dread that this was the inevitable future of my speech patterns and rhetoric, because for some reason, my almost-accent became the symbol for everything in my communities that I am ashamed of.
My anxieties were relieved seconds later when I remembered that it is possible to ‘lose’ accents, which led to a lifelong habit I have of overcorrecting when I detect any accent in my voice. I felt ashamed whenever I couldn’t hide how ‘country’ I really am. This happened with my almost-accent, the words I use, the ‘good-ole American values’ I was raised with, and even the way I dress.
My attempt at a nondescript accent was beleaguered at every turn. Brawley is known for its booming cattle industry, and my grandpa was a sixth-generation cowboy before retiring to become a middle school science teacher and then vice principal. His voice is booming and epitomizes an ‘Oakie’ accent. I was born in Bakersfield, located in the San Joaquin Valley, and lived there at least part time my entire life because my parents are divorced. When I moved back to Bakersfield full time for high school, it sometimes felt like all my attempts were in vain because of the sheer number of people who had the accent I was trying to avoid.
I am an Oakie on both sides: Grandpa’s family came to Brawley by railroad from Oklahoma in the early 1900s. My Dad’s grandmother came to Bakersfield in the 1930s from Oklahoma hoping to escape the horrors of the Great Depression in a story not unlike John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I thought I was totally screwed.
But here’s what I didn’t understand: I will always be a cowboy’s granddaughter. I cannot change where I am from or where my family is from. And despite the cringe I still get when I slip out “cattywampus,” a butchered Southern slang term meaning “cater-cornered,” I really do love where I am from. The populations of the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys are my people. Everything I am is because of them. I came to UC San Diego with this influence.
It’s at UCSD where I have gradually learned the benefits of the perspective my upbringing can have. On multiple occasions my classes have discussed the tremendous migration of people in states like Oklahoma to cities in California like Bakersfield in the hopes of outrunning the Dust Bowl. I am usually the only one in the class who can comment from personal experience. Environmental history is incomplete without a discussion of commercial agriculture, and I can comment about how my childhood home in Bakersfield was cattywampus to a carrot field. Of the hundreds of people I have met at UCSD, I have met only five who are from the Central Valley.
I love these places, but they are far from perfect. Though the agriculture industry feeds the world, it also exploits already disadvantaged laborers. I have seen first-hand intolerance in the form of things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which are prevalent in these areas. I know people who have been victimized by Bakersfield’s police department, often ranked the deadliest in the United States. But for all the time I cringe and distance myself, I could put the same energy into organizing and making every effort to improve the lives of those who made me.
A common concept in social justice is that efforts to improve a community are more successful when members of the community are the ones working to change it. For me, this means that I must accept responsibility for the oppression that members of some of the communities I belong to have inflicted on others. It is wrong of me to distance myself from it by covering up any connection. I am part of a community, and because I love my communities, I will work to improve them in every way I know how.
When Bakersfield surfaces in the news, it’s almost always because something bad is happening there. In the past, I have laughed and expressed something to distance me from Bakersfield. I’m sorry that I have done this. It was wrong. Instead, I should have been busy trying to make the community better. The Imperial Valley is greatly underserved for medical care, and my great-grandmother’s vision was saved by an eye doctor who lived and worked in San Diego, but who also worked in the Valley twice a month. This is the kind of help my communities need. There are so few Central Valley and Imperial Valley Tritons, and we have so much to contribute both at UCSD and at home.
Surprisingly, I never learned to ride horses and it’s time for that to change. I also want to meet the pigs my cousin raises, and for both of those goals, I need a pair cowboy boots. Last week I spent three hours online trying to find a pair of cowboy boots that didn’t actually look like cowboy boots and I came up short. The next time, that visibility won’t be a factor I consider.
Ashley Awe is a staff writer for The Triton.
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