Topping the list of the many things I am grateful for is being a bilingual Spanish speaker. This was the language of our home and there was never any question that we would speak it. We lived in a segregated Mexican-American community and attended a segregated parochial school. Everyone around us spoke Spanish. AND we kids were also fluent English speakers.
Efforts by the nuns at St. Joseph’s to punish the Spanish out of us were unsuccessful.
“Es-panish not allowed, you will be pined one knee-kol.”
The nuns, who were from the Philippines, treated us like colonial subjects and they were hell-bent on turning us into monolingual English speakers. In their minds, real Americans were people who spoke only English.
You know the old joke. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. A person who speaks three language? Trilingual. And a person who speaks only one language: American.
Many an afternoon I’d report back home to my mother that I had been fined (a penny or nickel) or otherwise punished for speaking Spanish. Her response: “diles que el que habla dos idiomas cuenta por dos.” Tell the sisters that someone who speaks two languages has the value of two persons. That was not a persuasive argument to the nuns and they offered no explanation as to why we should speak ONLY English. Still we persisted and we grew up bilingual as did every single person who went to St. Joseph’s.
My first encounter with Mexican-Americans kids who did not speak Spanish came when our family travelled to Austin (three+ hours north of Alice, our hometown of 18,000, in South Central Texas) to visit friends of our parents who had moved there. That was such a weird experience -- being with kids who looked just like us but only spoke English. Wha???? It blew my mind.
In college and beyond I met other Latinx who were monolingual English speakers and typically they had grown up in urban areas and in more racially integrated environments. Some parents wanted to shield their kids from the discrimination they had encountered and enforced an English-only rule in their homes. They hoped that if their kids spoke “perfect” English they would be more acceptable and treated better. There was also plenty of shaming done by fellow classmates. “This is America, stop talking Mexican!”
I meet plenty of Latinx folks who do not speak Spanish. “Hey Rodriguez, what do you mean you don’t speak Spanish?”
Some bristle at these encounters and a few have shared with me that they harbor resentment toward their parents for not teaching them Spanish. Blame a racist society, I say, not your parents.
“If it’s important to you,” I tell them, “it is totally within your power to learn Spanish. And if it isn’t, then make peace with it. Your parents were doing what they thought would give you the greatest opportunity. Don’t fault them for that.”
I love knowing Spanish and I speak it frequently with friends. Some are NOT native speakers but learned it at school and speak it beautifully (tip of the hat, you know who you are).
But lately I confess the following. I become anxious when I am in public places (especially on BART, the Bay Area’s subway system) and I overhear people speaking Spanish (or Arabic). I’m on guard, waiting for someone to make some nasty comment directed at these folks. I was reminded of this when reading the news story about the ACLU lawsuit on behalf of two United States citizens detained by a US Customs and Border Enforcement agent in a small town in Montana, who overheard the women chatting with each other in Spanish in a convenience store. https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-files-lawsuit-behalf-us-citizens-detained-speaking-spanish
After showing their valid Montana driver’s licenses, they were not allowed to leave the store’s parking lot. Other agents were called to the scene to further investigate them.
They asked the agent whether he was racially profiling them.
“Ma’am the reason I asked you for your ID is I came in here and I saw you guys are speaking Spanish, which is very unheard of up here,” the agent said, looking into the camera. The women videotaped the encounter with the officer.
Ana Suda, who was born in Texas, inquired of the officer’s supervisor, who had come to the scene, whether they would have been detained had they been speaking French.
The suit alleges that his reply was, “No,” we don’t do that.”
So friends, parlez-vous away.
Do you worry that speaking Spanish in public spaces might bring negative attention toward you? Let me hear from you on this point.
My one-woman show, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? explores these and other issues of living while brown in the US. If you live in the SF Bay Area, I hope you’ll come see it.
NOW in BERKELEY Sundays 2 pm
The Marsh Arts Center
2021 Allston Way
(between Oxford and Shattuck)
1/2 block from Downtown Berkeley BART