Monthly Archives: April 2013

On language and ownership

I created this blog as a celebration of the languages I speak, as a way to challenge myself in each one, to examine the beauty of each on its own. But language is not as simple as conjugations and vocabulary; one must learn when to speak, and why.

Hablo español. Esto digo con bastante confianza; aunque yo no tenga la fluidez natural de un hablante nativo, siempre consigo comunicarme fácilmente, y no tengo problemas en cambiar rápidamente entre inglés y español, como es casi requisito del mundo bilingüe Californiano.

no, no, no. But when, I ask, do I speak? When is it my turn to respect others? When do I stay out of the conversation entirely? I can form fluid sentences, but I cannot make a dirty joke. I can be there and listen to emotional outpourings, but I cannot respond with the same tenderness and sureness of the person you surely would rather be telling this to in your native tongue.

Because it’s not my língua, idioma, no. Because speaking Spanish is more than un acento, la ñ, un rítmo… it involves race, culture, life, family, and these are not mine to claim, in any way. I read a beautiful essay, in which a Latina college student speaks of her language divide, of the realities of studying the “language of conquest”. Well, I come from the conquistadores, I suppose, the German and Irish (languages that are no longer a part of me) ones. Those who were discriminated against upon arrival to the United States, but who assimilated enough to lead the discriminatory class, to pick a new assailant. For all the privilege I have as a white person in this country, how dare I try to act like I have a right to speak the language of a minority?

I go to the farmers market with una amiga peruana; she asks the woman si hay algunas empanadas saladas; y la vendedora explica que no hay debido a una regulación de salud– las temperaturas necesarias para las empanadas dulces y saladas son diferentes, y ya es demasiado trabajo traer los dos tipos. And she looks at me and smiles and asks if I would like to try a sample. Sure, I say. Does she know that I understood the conversation, albeit a banal one? Is there any point in acknowledging this shared language when we have another we can just as easily use? My Peruvian-Californian friend chose to speak Spanish and was thus answered in it, but I don’t know that I would receive the same response.

I teach an English as a second language class in a heavily Latino Catholic school. By nature of the subject matter, my students all speak little English (though they grow by the week, which gives me such pride!). I teach in slow, repetitive English, utilizing hand gestures. But when I talk to students one on one, it is usually in Spanish. Criticize my pedagogy if you will, but please, step into my classroom first. The church sells fresh-grilled food on Thursdays, always fundraising, and Spanish, too, is the language. There is such assumption of language that the güera speaking Spanish is not strange. Or perhaps it’s been seen before. I am well received; in this setting, I feel no language pressures.

My class has been growing, though, and we ran out of chairs one day. I went into the next classroom, a catechism class (or something of that nature) and asked si pudiera prestar unas sillas, not even thinking about the language of my request. One of the men simply stared at me, and responded, “yeah, you can borrow some chairs, as long as you bring them back”. Was I insulting him by not using English? Does my race and accent mean that Spanish is not my domain on which to tread? Todavía no sé.

What time does your class end?, I asked, now following his code-switch. Another student responded, a las ocho. The first man translated for me. Thanks.

We were invited to be on a Spanish-language television show. To talk about our work, fighting for immigrant rights. It was clear that things moved fast in TV-land; the representative first sent an email in Spanish, and left me a voicemail in English, inviting us to be on the show. I called her up immediately- one can’t let these things wait til morning. Hablas español? she asked, a few sentences in, sí, pero hablo mejor el inglés. Because English is the language of business. It seems. We continued our conversation in Spanglish, a quick back and forth. I brought the discussion back to my co-workers. We needed people to be on TV, to acknowledge our hard work, what an opportunity! I made it clear that I would happily coordinate, but I could not take that role myself. Why not? asked my co-worker. no puedo hacer una entrevista en español, dije. He was unsatisfied with my answer. Why? Ok, it’s more than feelings about language fluency. It’s because I am not the face of this struggle, because I believe in the rights of immigrants, and I can hear testimonies and do plenty to advance the cause, but it is not my struggle; no es mi voz; no es mi lucha. 

When I finally met the representative in person, she only spoke English to me, despite our multi-phone call, multi-lingual back and forth.

And here we go, on and on. I know other folks in my same situation, and all choose to act differently. I once observed the actions of another white-lady-who-speaks-Spanish, and how she navigated this divide. We held a meeting, in English (because the meetings are always in English, even when the community is not). César came in, and she asked, “Ceaser (pronounced like the salad)how about you introduce yourself?” And he said, “Hello, my name is César (prounciado como el gran líder César Chávez). Names are names, and they are mispronounced always. But if someone introduces himself by a specific pronunciation, and by your own job description, you have the capabilities to call him that, why would you Anglo-cize his name, when he himself did not do so? César didn’t bat an eyelid. This is nothing.

Language, language. I change the pronunciation of my name when I want to show that I can speak Spanish. It’s all assumptions. Sometimes it’s necessary; sometimes it doesn’t matter.

I went to the farmer’s market by myself yesterday. No amiga peruana to initiate the conversation. I bought tomatoes and saw that the man had several types of beans. “When are you going to have habas?” I asked. “Habas… he said, looking at me quizzically, but knowing that such a name was natural… favas?” Yes. I love them. “Next week, I’ll bring them for you.”

Entonces, para la próxima, voy a comprar habas (porque habas, que comí en Ecuador, con cuales hago una sopa mexicana, no existen (en mi mente) en inglés), y tal vez evitaré el miedo de hablar con él en español. Comunicamos claramente en inglés… pero así llego al mismo lugar, queriendo hablar español, mostrar que entiendo algo más de que sospechen, o pretender ser otra, alguien que no soy. Spanish is not the language of my identity. But in a way, it has started to take shape in crafting who I present myself as. No real consequences come from using the proper or improper language; and there is no right answer as to what makes the correct linguistic choice. As long as we understand each other, I suppose…

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