My move from New Mexico to South Texas meant leaving snow-peaked mountains and arriving to towering palms and sandy beaches.

Assimilation into the Spanish-speaking culture hasn't been easy. It's an on-going process that will undoubtedly take a lifetime.

One of the first things I've learned in college is that if you want to get on the bad side of a professor, simply pronounce her name wrong. "Dr. Saaand-chaaaz," I say in a Texas drawl.

I'm standing in the doorway of her office, surveying the various books on her shelves. The professor doesn't bother to look away from her computer, and curtly replies, "That's NOT my name."

Mortified, I glance at the door. The nameplate reads Dr. Sánchez.

"It's Sauuun-chauuz," she corrects sternly, her tone adds a silent message ‘muchacha ignorante.' No need for translation.

For the next few weeks, I practice pronouncing "Sánchez" in the mirror. When I said the name in the way I naturally pronounce it, my front teeth show in a full-toothy grin: "Saaand-chaaaz."

But when I force myself to say the name the way the professor does, it strains my thin lips in an unnatural cavern shaped "O," as if I were singing the Christmas carol "O Holy Night" "Sauuun-chauuz."

My lower lip falls open and hangs there: "chauuz."

Truly, I can see her point. The chorus look certainly looks more sophisticated than a toothy grin. But daughter Mindy begs to differ.

"Give it a rest, Mom," she says. "You're a guera (weda) and always will be."

To improve my Spanish-speaking skills, I jump at most opportunities to speak a little, unless it involves pronouncing professors' names. If that task arises, I stick with "Professor." That solves the problem, unless you're at a party with a room full of them. In which case it's best to keep quiet.

Not long ago, Spouser and I had a little work done on our home. I listened as the Mexican workers came into our living room and spoke to one another in Spanish. One phrase I heard repeatedly was their friendly greeting to one another: "¡Hola, cabron!"

They would shout it in a jocose growl "¡cabron!" and slap each other on the back.

What nice men, I thought, assuming cabron meant good friend.

As the weeks passed and I grew accustomed to the men, and I was comfortable attempting some Spanish.

"Un bien bonita dia," I would say, hoping for a response I could understand. Usually I would receive a nod or two, perhaps a blank stare.

One day an older, friendlier man named Chuy climbed his ladder, holding a paintbrush in his hand. I stood at the foot of the ladder and handed him a soda.

"Para ti, cabron," I said gleefully, shoving the drink high so he could reach it.

Chuy looked at me strangely with the same expression the cats get when I lock them out of the house because of their muddy paws. I sensed there was something seriously wrong.

"Cabron es amigo, si?" I asked.

Chuy stopped painting and looked down at me. "No," he replied, attempting to speak English. "Cabron is fauu-ker."

Fauu-ker isn't exactly the word I know to be "the bad word," but I figured that's what Chuy was trying to say, and I understood my mistake.

But apologizing was altogether different since I didn't know how to say the words "I'm sorry" in Spanish. But Chuy laughed, and I laughed, too the universal language we both understood that made it okay.

This morning Spouser and I stop at a Mexican caf near our home were we eat often. All the staff know us by name.

"¡Hola, Heee-na!" our waiter Noe calls.

Heee-na. I know enough Spanish to appreciate the "g" is pronounced with a "h" phlegm-in-the-throat sound. Heee-na to MY ear sounds a lot like hyena, a not very flattering freckled dog-looking mammal with a maniacal cry that sounds like laughter.

I could correct Noe and tell him that's not my name. But after thinking about it a minute, Heee-na could be my Spanish name, like the Biblical Paul's name was changed from the Jewish name Saul.

I left New Mexico and came to South Texas. My name is both Gina and Heee-na. I guess you could say I'm part gringa and part assimilated Mexicana part of the great melting pot we call Los Estados Unidos.

Gina Tiano is the author of Life in the Bike Lane, available at