I was trying my hardest to fit in, though there was a caution in my step that the locals lacked. I entered the tattoo parlour after I had taken great care to ensure that it appeared to meet my sanitation standards. Instead of doing as the Romans did in Rome, I stood out like a Visigoth. There was a great barrier between these people and me, that of class. The struggle between classes is the driving force of history. That’s what Hegel and Marx would’ve said, right? Perhaps it would be wise if I just didn’t go on about things I don’t fully understand.
“Good morning” I mustered up the courage to say. “I believe I have an appointment with someone called…” I checked my pocket notepad “Antonio”.
There were many clients at the shop getting piercings and body art. A woman was getting a hummingbird on her leg. Nearby, a tough-looking man was getting Chinese characters all over his back. They all turned to stare at me, with heads of dyed hair in startling colours, some wearing baseball caps turned the wrong way.
“Oh, Tony! Ain’t nobody ink like him. Imma holla tell homey you bin waitin” chimed the friendly shopowner.
Ah, dialects. In some ways they are more valid than the standard English language, for it really didn’t matter here whether you’d studied Milton, because no one really talks like that. The native language in this quarter of Los Angeles appeared to be African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics.
My English would be old-fashioned and anachronistic, a source of embarrassment to be ridiculed by all who heard it.
“Hello, Freya. I am Tony. What can I do for you today?”
It seemed that the owner of this place was African American, but the artists were Mexican and spoke a different dialect, borrowing a bit of slang from time to time.
“This design” I said, handing him a folded paper. “Exact size, on my wrist, please.”
Just then a regal-looking, cacao-skinned lady walked up to us. She stood very close to the artist and clung to his arm, allowing me to guess their relationship.
“What’s up, queen?”
“Bae, look at her. She must be a total fake. Ask her for her ID.”
“Are you eighteen?” Tony asked me suspiciously. Darn it!
“No” I admitted.
“Well kid, you got parental consent to this?”
“Don’t worry about it. I made them sign the form” I said, handing over another sliver of paper.
By this time I was aware of the laughter and whispers, feeling like all eyes were on me as Tony scrutinized the form.
“Come right this way” he instructed.
“How much will this hurt?” I asked.
Tony’s girlfriend laughed. “This skin on the wrist is thin, so probably a lot for you, kid”.
“Hey!” I cried indignantly. “I’m no kid.”
“Don’t worry” she told me with an enigmatic flash in her obsidian eyes. “We have ways of reducing the pain”.
“We can shove a block of softwood in your mouth so you can bite that instead of your tongue when the needle hits” Antonio suggested, chuckling.
“Yikes! I’m getting a tattoo, not a limb amputated!”
“I was just messin’ wid ya. We use a cream that causes temporary numbness.”
I followed him to a chair, where his girlfriend helped get his supplies ready as he unfolded the piece of paper I gave him that bared the design. I noticed the amiable shopkeeper, whose name tag said ‘Hatuey’, watching me with unabashed curiosity, as were some of the artists and clients.
Tony burst out laughing. “Is this all? It’s not very intricate.”
“It’s my favourite letter in the International Phonetic Alphabet!” I said defensively.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. The voiceless alveolar lateral affricate” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
I was astonished, for I did not know this fact to be common knowledge outside of people of my profession. I was even more surprised when he began to click his tongue as he worked, pronouncing the sound perfectly.
“ t͡ɬ, t͡ɬ, t͡ɬ…”
Hatuey had now moved a bit closer to us. “Check this yo, Q’orianka, she be trippin.”
“She does appear to be very anxious” Q’orianka said thoughtfully, noting my bewildered expression.
“He be done befo’ you know it” Hatuey tried comforting me.
“I don’t think that’s why she’s nervous. Tony, you’d better explain yourself to Freya.”
“Oh I see what the matter is! I studied Classical Nahuatl for eight years. I am a linguist, you see.” He smiled.
“A linguist! No way! I’m a linguist too.”
“Bet she thinks she’s a philosopher and historian as well” Q’orianka said skeptically, raising her eyebrow. Of course I was!
“You’ve really studied Classical Nahuatl? Amazing! So you’re aware of this letter, as it is in many Uto-Aztecan languages.”
“Yes. I focused on the dialect of Texcoco.”
“What?!” I struggled to contain my excitement and tried not to move as Tony worked.
“Dayum! Girl be thinkin’ you supafly now, Tony.”
“I know she thinks I’m really cool now. Clearly, she’s very into this stuff, and she probably realizes that Texcoco’s dialect was considered the purest and refined Nahuatl out of all the variations spoken throughout the Aztec city states”.
“It’s not just the language I find fascinating, but the culture. I have read the work of poets of the epoch such as Nezahualcoyotl, and it shows me there was so much more to their society than what you’d see at first glance. I want to help indigenous people by preserving their languages and fighting for their rights.” I explained.
“You’re woke fo shizzle. You no wanksta.” Hatuey commented.
“You’re more aware than most of our plight. You sound genuine.” Q’orianka noted.
Tony’s work soon came to an end, and Hatuey told me the whole thing would cost ‘fitty bucks’. I thought this was more than a little bit excessive but paid up anyway, even adding a generous tip.
“Hey if you got a sec, don’t go rollin’ out just yet.”
“Sure” I said “I have time”.
I watched as the three friends started huddling and whispering about me. I wondered what it was about me that made them so interested, other than my outlandish mannerisms. At last, Q’orianka told me what was going on.
“Freya, we’ve thought about it and we think it’s alright to tell you one of our secrets.” She said in a hushed whisper that drew me nearer. “Tony, Hatuey and I all have varying amounts of indigenous blood and we are actually all part of a resistance group”.
“Do you mean you all study history, linguistics, and decolonization theory together?”
“Nah we ain’t no book club.” Hatuey said.
“We do more than that. We attend public protests, sometimes ones that can get violent and dangerous and involve illegal activity, but it’s only so we can help oppressed people” Tony explained.
“I understand. Count me in.” I said.
“Hold on, it doesn’t work like that. First of all, you’re not even indigenous. That means you can’t join, sorry.” Q’orianka said. “We can’t dilute our movement with too many outsiders. I hope you understand.”
“I do. I’m not offended.”
“Also, you winced too much when you were getting the t͡ɬ. You probably won’t be strong enough, no offense.”
“No, it makes sense.” I said. “But I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“Because we want you know that we stand with you. Decolonization is a struggle and we never want you to be alone it it.” Said Q’orianka.
“Aww, thanks guys. I am deeply humbled. All of you are so wise and I aspire to be like you someday.”
When I left the shop, I felt as if I was in some third world country as I walked the streets, filled with dire poverty. These were people who could never trust cops, whose history was not taught in schools and whose children were sometimes stolen from them, put into white foster homes. They were demonized, sometimes even by others of their own race who had managed to make it higher up the social ladder than them and in doing so forgot all about their roots and became sellouts. These were the native people of the land, quiet and forgotten. It was selfish of me to want to leave behind the legacy of a great activist, because the best I could do would really be to shut up and listen. I don’t belong to their land the way they do.
I’m just a foreign vistor.