Wednesday, January 13, 2010

OT -- On speaking in Spanish

Why do mexicans who can speak english, speak spanish?

I hear this question a great deal - from people at work, friends. Often they are pretty ticked off about it. I don't know why they bring it up to me. Maybe its because I'm only half Mexican and people feel like I might be a bit safer to talk to about it. Like my loyalties are divided or maybe I'm just one of those approachable people in life.

So, as a public service, I'm here to do a little conversation on it. I'm inspired to do so by something I watched while I was sick.

It was a documentary my mother gave me for Christmas. She never gives me movies, she knows I'm not a big TV watcher. But she was insistent. It was about a Supreme Court case I'd never heard of. It's a pretty big case, but I'll bet most people here have never heard of it.

It's basically a case that had the same ramifications for Hispanics (a term I use here to refer to people of latin descent who are US citizens) as Brown v. the Board of Education.

You can actually watch the film on line, or just read the description here. Hernandez v. Texas was attempting to address this:

I think most people, at least I want to think most people are unaware of how rampant these signs were in Texas. They were so common that the Texas Restaurant Association had some printed as a courtesy for their members.

It wasn't about immigrants either. If you were hispanic your kid couldn't go to the white school, and you couldn't use the white bathroom in the court house.

Anyway, after watching this film I realized that many people don't know about these things because we don't talk about it. Maybe we're ashamed of it, as if we caused it. Maybe we just want to forget.

But it leads, I think, to a sort of cultural blindness. I think there is power in memory.

A year ago an essay I wrote called Mother Tongue ran in the Texas Co-op Magazine. I tried to explain why I speak Spanish on occasion.

I realize this may ruffle some feathers. But to me, the worthwhile conversations always do.

Mother Tongue

“Speak in English,” my mother tells me. I barely realize I’d slipped into Spanish with my grandmother. We’re out shopping, and my grandmother, who at 93 is fully bilingual but hard of hearing, is in need of new bifocals.

Somehow, as I was nearly shouting the information to my grandmother from the soft-spoken technician, I went from “She says they need to measure the width” to “tus ojos, por que estos son muy grande.”

My mother’s admonishment has nothing to do with speaking English because this is the U.S. and we speak English here. I’m fifth generation Texan, thanks to my Grandmother’s people. They were working the land here long before my “Anglo” grandfather had arrived on Ellis Island. My Hispanic side of the family has been fully bilingual for generations. We speak in English as a matter of courtesy to those who know only one language. It’s considered rude in our family to speak Spanish in front of people who may not understand what we’re saying.

Still, speaking Spanish feels completely different than speaking English – and I’m not even fluent in Spanish. I know border Spanish, granddaughter Spanish. It’s just enough to get by in family gatherings and excursions across the border for corn tortillas.

For me English has been the way I express everything from poetry to irony. I’d be hard pressed to tell a joke in Spanish, let alone manage a clever play on words. My mother was a stickler for correct word usage and I owe her a debt I can never repay for a great vocabulary and my ability to speak in clear, accent free English.

So why does Spanish feel like warm chocolate coating my vocal chords, sweet and smooth? Especially when my command of the language is so bad?

When I’m speaking Spanish and specific words are lost to my brain, when I can’t figure out how to say “frames” or “purple,” I am forced to toss in the English words like rocks in the flowing stream. They land with a thump in the middle of my Spanish sentence, the water of words rushing around it. If my sister (who is fluent in both languages) talks too quickly, or when I try to keep up with an announcer on Spanish language TV, I fall hopelessly behind, grasping at the few key words for purchase.

Yet with my grandmother, even my broken Spanish seems so much more loving that it slips out instinctively. Spanish is forever the language of family and it’s a bond that won’t break. In our family we call our children “mi vida” – my life. It’s much more common to say “mija” - a slurring of the words “my” and “daughter “– than “hija” –which is merely “daughter.” The diminutive is sweeter too, with the word “chiquitita” meaning little girl, but from my grandmother’s and mother’s lips an intense love forms like a wave on their tongue, and instead the word has always meant “my precious, precious, little one.” To this day if I hear this word I expect a hug at any moment.

Out of respect for the technician, I nearly shout, in English this time, to my hard of hearing grandmother. I explain how long it will take for them to make the changes she needs in her new glasses. She nods and thanks the technician for her help – in English, of course – and notes that she’ll be happy not to have the headaches the old pair was giving her.

We leave and, as I help her into the car, I slip into the embrace of Spanish again. This time there is no one to feel left out.

Aqui, estamos agusto. Here, we are at home.



Life at Star's Rest said...

I love Spanish and I'm envious of Mike for being bilingual. He got me a Spanish learning program last year but I still haven't gotten it set up on my computer. I think I'm afraid my poor old brain can't take on a new language!

I'm old enough to remember when I was in junior high in Boerne, the hiring of what I called 'Nazi Nuns' (sorry if that offends anyone) to teach the Spanish speaking students through sheer terror. I would be in the next classroom and I could hear those nuns screaming at those poor little sixth graders and banging on their desks with canes. Hopefully, they weren't also banging on the kids.

The idea was to force them to speak english and they were punished for using any Spanish at all. I'm glad those days of terrorizing children are past, at least in public schools.


Kate said...

I keep hoping that with the increase in immigrants to our country who speak other languages, including Spanish, that our country could move more towards being multi-lingual, like Switzerland or the Netherlands - no one in those countries questions the need or benefit to learning other languages.

In my mind, it would be best if all Americans - if they've been here for many generations or are recent immigrants - learned English and at least one other language - Spanish is a good choice. I'm not there yet myself, either.

You are so right about the long history of discrimination against Hispanics, whether immigrant or not.

Interesting post!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Beautiful post. When I go to my favorite Mexican restaurant, I try to speak Spanish. I feel more at home when I do. Our severs tend to switch back and forth between English and Spanish, but we do understand each other. Part of the reason why I love the restaurant so much is that they make me feel like I'm a part of their family. They don't just take our orders and disappear into the kitchen, they pull up a chair and chat with us.

I think any time that people bring some new culture or behavior into a community, people become prejudiced out of fear. I admit I don't like all the city people moving to my rural area, because they don't have my concept of manners. They speed and cause car wrecks, they ignore NO TRESPASSING signs, they honk and rev their engines at horseback riders, they drive too often, increasing traffic and noise pollution, and they seem oblivious to the sounds of nature, obliterating every one else's chance of enjoying the peace... All this is happening without them even being aware of how they are affecting others. After a while the majority wins out... the country becomes a city.

So, I think people just fear that they will become the minority.
One of the ways to do that is to make the outsiders not feel welcome -- just like in the sign in your picture.

I once had a coworker who excluded me and ignored me when I spoke to her. She had nothing but cruel things to say about me behind my back. I now understand that she behaved that way because she recognized that I was doing a better job than her, and she feared that I would replace her. People are always knocking each other down to keep themselves up. It's silly.

Susan said...

On a related note: I know people who dislike bilingual labels on packages and on signs, etc. "If they're going to live here, they should speak English." What they don't realize is that it's greed. A lot of people living here are Spanish speaking and corporations don't want to miss out on making a buck. It has nothing to do with helping people out in a new country. They don't really care about people, only about taking their money.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Interesting post, Winter. I enjoyed your article, too. You write very well.

One of the reasons we chose to pull our sons of out public school in second grade and homeschool them instead was the Spanish/English Immersion Program thay had forced on the children in that school when we lived in South Carolina.

The school considered itself very progressive and welcomed a very large Mexican community into it's schools.

We liked the mix of African American, Hispanic American and the smaller groups of Asian children in our schools, so we decided to move to a neighborood with one of the good schools that we could walk to. We could actually see the elementary school from our front yard.

My twinlings attended the preschool program there, followed by kindergarten, and then at the beginning of 1st grade we received a letter from the school saying that one of my twin sons would be bussed to a different elementary school about 15 miles away from our house.

When we asked why, not only were they planning to separate my twin sons, but why were they bussing my child to a different school district when we could walk to his current school, the administrators told me that this other school needed more 'diversity'. That is was predominantly black and hispanic and needed more white children to attend.



Laughing Orca Ranch said...


Needless to say I was not happy. I demanded that my twin son stay at his current school, but they tried to talk me into moving my other twin son to that school. That wasn't good enough. My children weren't going to spend 30 minutes twice a day wasting time commuting to a school outside our home district just to be a part of a public school experiment.

After a couple weeks of discussions and lots of complaining, the matter was finally worked out and my children could remain in their neighborhood school.

But then the Spanish/English Immersion Program affected my sons' ability to focus and learn without distractions.

You see, in each class, the Mexican farm worker's children were placed with a system to prevent them from speaking any Spanish. Mind you, these poor children could barely speak any English at all and probably understood even less.

But what was done that made it so diffciult for the English speaking kids was that the English Speaking kids were used to block and separate the Mexican Farm worker children from one another, so they couldn't speak any Spanish with each other.

It worked fine in theory I suppose, but often at the expense of the English Speaking kids who were trying in vain to focus and pay attention to what the teachers were saying, while the Mexican Farmer children whispered back and forth, over and across the English speaking kids, often tossing notes to each other, too.

So, not only were the English Speaking kids finding it difficult to learn anything at all, except maybe a few words of Spanish, but the Spanish speaking kids weren't able to learn anything either.

When I complained to the teachers, they said, that's just the way it has to be. They had nowhere else to put the Mexican Farm Worker's children, even though I suggested that a classroom with a teacher who would could instruct these kids on how to speak English would be more fair than just throwing them into a classroom where they didn't speak or understand the language.

Oh and guess what else? Do you want to know which language was taught, as a Second Language, in that particular elementary school?

Do you want to know the first language my twin sons were taught besides English????


And yes, the Mexican Farm Worker's children were also expected to attend French class, too.

That school was not the exception either. This sort of thing is going on all across the country in public institutions.

It's no wonder there are so many bad feelings between people.

Years ago we were invited to a huge Mexican wedding by the bride. Over 300 people attended and it was held in the downtown Convention Center in ABQ.
We were placed at a table with 5 Spanish speaking people, and though we spoke a few times in English with one another, 95% of the time that we sat there, they spoke, very loudly in Spanish, laughing with each other. We felt like outcasts and after an hour we finally got up and moved to another table. I think they achieved their goal of making us feel uncomfortable and getting us to leave, because as soon as we left, our seats were filled by a Spanish speaking couple.


Michelle said...

You're right, I had no idea about the case you refer to, nor about the program that Lisa mentioned in the comments. I am a firm believer that we (as a country) should adopt a second language. But I also think that residents here should at least attempt to learn English. It's great that you are so considerate of others when communicating with your family! I loved your essay. Thanks for educating me a bit today!

Stephanie said...

Very interesting post!

I am from a bilingual family with my fathers family all being Puerto Rican and suffered from what I would call unjust prejudice growing up.
I grew up in northern NJ, and went to all Catholic schools and when I was young (kindergarten/first grade) I would get into big trouble with the nuns when I would slip into spanish. Apparently it was enough of a 'disturbance' that they talked my family into no longer speaking spanish at home. What a terrible shame.

I loved spending time with my gradnparents because although fully bilingual they would talk to me in spanish and it always felt like such a delicious treat. SOmething special just for me.

In the long run, I fear, it was a bad decision to not speak both languages. I now only have a very small comand of spanish and it now makes me very anxious if I am in a position to try and communicate in spanish.

Your Essay is very beautiful and brings back such warm memories of my own Abuelita. Thank You.

Breathe said...

Thank you for your great comments. Speaking two languages, even in a limited way, is a great thing, IMHO.

I talked to a co-worker who said everyone at this little taco hut was illegal because they just spoke spanish. I was shocked that someone would believe something so weird.

And then I heard it on TV. That's why I wrote this, initally.

Lisa, I'm sorry your kids had a negative experience with immersion. Here parents are battling to get their kids in the spanish immersion classes.

At the end of the day, I think it is what my mother taught me - courtesy. If a non spanish speaker is present, be polite. And offer to translate.

Frankly I've been at plenty of weddings where I've been the odd one out. And we were all speaking english. Rude people are just that. Rude.

I'm sorry you were treated lousy.

Breathe said...

I also agree the whole "press one for english" and bilingual labels are about $$. They'd have it in german if there was a market.

Leah Fry said...

Beautifully said. Learning Spanish is on my bucket list.

Cheryl Ann said...

I wish I could speak the languages of my ancestors. If I did, I'd be speaking Spanish and German. I tried to learn German one summer at the local college, but I couldn't make the sounds. I learned Spanish in high school and college, and then used it for 7 years while teaching at a largely Spanish-speaking school. I haven't used it much in the last several years and I miss the way the words slid off my tongue. It is a beautiful language! I need to practice more! I've actually picked up some French from our daughter and I'd also like to learn more French! You know, people in Europe speak many languages! Why don't we?

Jane said...

A truly beautiful post.
Frankly, it's no one's business why anyone choses to speak whichever language to the person they are communicating with. (IMO)

I do not speak Spanish, but have picked up some words from kind people who helped me out here and there.

Working in barns has often meant working with people who speak Spanish and English, or are learning English. We ask each other questions in a mix of languages. My favorite was when I accidentally asked a fellow worker if he'd mind turning on the moon for me because he was near the switch and it was getting dark in the barn!

He replied "Sure. Tiene la estralitas too? That's when I realized I'd used the wrong word. We both fell out laughing.

Why can't it be like this? Why all the judgement? Why in the world does it matter as long as you are not being rude?

He was willing to turn on the moon and the stars for me. :)

jennybean79 said...

If only I could speak fluently in another language other than English!

Your essay was thought provoking and beautifully written. When I have children, I will definitely put an emphasis on them learning two languages - I do think that's important and a great asset and skill to have.

It makes me somewhat uncomfortable when I am in the middle of a group of people speaking a language I don't understand. I always imagine them talking about me or making fun of me, lol. Really though, America is a great big melting pot - I truly believe that one of the things that makes it such a great country is the great diversity of people living here. Yes, English is important to know, but so is knowing about your ancestory and heritage.

Thanks again for the post, I really enjoyed it!

Breathe said...

Thank you all for such considerate and sincere comments. I'm glad I opened the door on this one...