Tortilla Rhymes with Chinchilla
One might expect that a school in a town called Chili, pronounced with two long ‘i’s’, chai-lie, the local schools might be a little substandard. I had come from a Junior High in Manhattan Beach where the local drug dealer parked his car across from the playground and did brisk business with students throughout the day, a school where I was routinely beaten up for my lunch money by kids looking to procure the pusher’s wares until I started bringing a sack lunch every day and hiding a couple of quarters for ice cream in my shoes. I should have been a cynical teen-aged woman of the world by ninth grade. Nonetheless I had pathetically high hopes for my new school.
English was my best subject, so I expected my teacher to adore me once she saw my writing. We began by reading John Steinbeck’s book, The Pearl. My teacher read a list of Steinbeck’s other books out loud. When she got to Tortilla Flat, she pronounced Tortilla with hard ‘l’s like chinchilla.
Ever helpful, I raised my hand.
“In Spanish when you have two l’s together, it’s pronounced like a y. And the i is pronounced like and e. So it’s torteeya, not tortiLLa.”
I sat back, satisfied that she would now apprehend that I was her star student.
Instead she narrowed her eyes in rage.
“Well, this is not a Spanish class, this is an English class, and in English we say tortilla!”
Then she sent me to the office for being rude.
The next day she looked at me archly. “So, Cheri, how do we say ‘tortilla’ in English?”
I knew from having checked with my mother the night before that the teacher was wrong, that no one said tortilla so that it rhymed with Manila and vanilla. But I did not want to get in trouble, so I resorted to humor, “You say tortilla, I say torteeya…” I warbled.
Back to the office.
Two days in a row! A good kid like me? Considering what my father might do if he found out caused me to hyperventilate so hard I had to put my head between my knees.
I prayed Miss Cooper had forgotten all about flat Mexican comestibles, but the next day she said with poisonous sweetness. “Cheri; will you please read the list of John Steinbeck’s works?”
I said Torteeya Flat as softly and quickly as I could, moving on to The Cannery, but she caught it.
“I guess people from Los Angeles are slow learners,” she said, “I guess people from Los Angeles can’t pronounce things in English. Go to the office.”
Her smug ignorance inflamed my passion for the truth.
“Miss Cooper; have you ever seen a tortilla? Have you eaten a tortilla? Have you bought a tortilla? I grew up close to Mexico, eating Mexican food…”
“Get out of my class!” she thundered.
Back to the office. This time the secretary ushered me in to see the Principal. Though since I was watching tears splash onto the laces of my shoes one couldn’t actually say I saw him.
“Why are you antagonizing Miss Cooper?” he rumbled. “Were you a troublemaker in your last school?”
“No. I’m not a troublemaker. I’m not trying to antagonize her. But she’s a teacher,” I blubbered. “ Teachers are supposed to know the right answers. I really thought she’d want to know. She’s teaching the kids something wrong.”
“Listen, kid. The teacher is always right, even if they’re wrong. Understand?”
After a weekend to consider the problem, I approached English class as if I were walking to the firing squad.
“Welcome back to class, Cheri. Did you have a good chat with the Principal?” she gritted out his title as if it were Grand Inquisitor.
“Tortilla. Rhymes with Manila, vanilla, chinchilla and–Godzilla.” I conceded.
“That’s right,” she said with that horrible smug smile, and continued on with her lesson.
“Flat,” I muttered under my breath, ‘flat, like the earth.’
But I said it softly and remained in class.