Like him, most Salvadorans hold proudly to the distinctions of Central America's smallest country: El Salvador's independence day is September 15, the day before Mexico's; the national menu is made up of pupusas and fried yuca, not enchiladas and menudo; Salvadorans flood the dance floor when a band sounds off a cumbia, not as a mariachi band belts out a ranchera.
But sounding Mexican sometimes is inevitable. The two communities have mingled at work, school and church for nearly three decades; they have intermarried, baptized each other's children and cried at each other's funerals.
Some have subconsciously picked up Mexican speech habits. They slip and use common Mexican expressions such as correle (hurry.) Others deliberately Mexicanize their speech to avoid confusion. They ask the ice cream vendor for helado, not sorbete, and fly a papalote (kite) instead of a pizcucha.
Others refuse to budge.
"I'm never going to change the way I speak," Mendoza said. English should be the first priority for an immigrant, so why "run around speaking Mexican?" he asked. "Out of need," argued Martin Fernandez, who left El Salvador for the San Fernando Valley in 1989.
Alma Jimenez was fed up by the time she and her Mexican husband, Reynaldo Ortiz, faced off in the bunk bed debate.
Her traditional Salvadoran dishes had long been pushed aside by her husband's Mexican fare. She had seen her kids adapt entirely to her husband's Mexican way of speaking. ("I was born here. I wasn't born in El Salvador," 9-year-old Wendy Ortiz protests when her mother asks why she doesn't sound more Salvadoran.) And when Jimenez least expected it, her husband's Mexican words began to sneak into her own speech.
Things were different when they first began dating more than 20 years ago. Although she and her family felt that Mexicans had discriminated against them, they liked Ortiz because he "was never disrespectful to anyone," she said.
But through the years, he has playfully turned his wife's way of speaking into a running joke. Soon, his brother began tease her too, aping her "vos, vos, vos" when he visits.
"I tell him to stop bothering me," Jimenez says. "Let me be who I am."
Most days, their marriage flows like any other. But when a squabble erupts over whether to call something by a Salvadoran term or a Mexican one, Jimenez dives at the chance to protect that morsel of her identity. Before long, the row turns tense as Reynaldo tells his wife to "talk normal" and Alma snaps back that he can't have everything his way. When Reynaldo mimics her dialect to persuade her that she talks "funny," Alma storms out angrily.
There was the duel over the word "belt"(she said cincho, he said cinto), then the one over how to say "straw" (she said pajia, he said popote.)
And another one -- a big one triggered by their eldest daughter, Heidi -- over the term "bunk bed."
"I called it a camarote because my mom always says camarote," Heidi, 19, said. "But my dad told me, 'No, it's a litera. You have to say litera'. I told him, 'I don't know. I'm just going to stick with camarote.' . . . So he got mad, then my mom got mad, and then they started arguing."
The self-described "Salvi-Mexican" often stands by and watches her parents argue, then make up, only to argue once again. She hops back and forth between the two cultures without giving boundaries much thought. Like many second-generation Salvadorans, she is annoyed and puzzled by the tongue tango.
She doesn't see the point.
"We're all Latinos," she said. "The thing that brings us together is that we all speak Spanish. Everybody needs to just get used to it and get along."