When I meet new people, I often try to slip into the conversation that I’m Mexican-American. You can’t tell by looking at me (I’m the whitey-whitest in a family of fairly white Mexicans) and you can’t tell by talking with me because my Spanish is terrible. I love my culture and I’m so proud to be Latina, but I often feel like a fraud because I can’t really speak the language.
The fact that I’m not bilingual is one of the biggest disappointments and frustrations in my life. My parents are fluent Spanish and English speakers, but they only spoke English to me and my brothers and sister. I really think for someone like myself who doesn’t pick up languages (or math, or directions) easily, hearing it spoken in the home as I was growing up, would have had a profound impact.
It’s not that I’m bitter (okay, I’m a little bitter) that my parents didn’t teach us Spanish, because in a way I can understand their motivation. When my mother was a child she moved back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. Her first memory of moving to Mexico was starting kindergarten and not knowing a word of Spanish. Eventually the family picked up and moved north, but by that time she’d lost her English. She was scared and uncomfortable at school and she never forgot that feeling. She didn’t want her children to be teased or have a difficult time learning. She wanted us to speak English well and assimilate.
And assimilate we did. We were not the Condes de la Torres. We were the Condeses (con-desses). The assimilation to the broader U.S. culture happened even though we grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where 35 percent of the population is Hispanic and most of that percentage spoke Spanish. We would hear the language everywhere we went, but I could only catch half of the conversation at best.
I’ve studied Spanish several times in my life, both in high school and college, as well as a summer immersion program in Guadalajara, Mexico. Hell, my college minor was Spanish. Even with all of that, I was far from fluent. I wonder if my parents had spoken to us in both Spanish and English for the first decade or so of our lives would we be fluent in both, like all of my cousins and friends who grew up in bilingual households?
Now that I’m a parent, I try to teach my kids words and phrases, and when my mom comes to visit she speaks and reads to them in Spanish. I try to bring as much Mexican culture into our home as possible and read to them from Spanish-English books. I hope that those things, combined with Spanish classes early on, will help them love the language and want to speak it.
I recently talked with a fellow mom who was bilingual, but had made the decision not to speak Spanish in front of her kids. Like my mom, she just wanted them to read and write well in one language. Hearing that, I thought of my continuing regret that Spanish was not a fundamental part of how I was raised nor who I am today. I told her my story and how I wished I had a bilingual life. I hope she reconsiders and gives her kids that chance.
Yvonne Condes also blogs at www.yvonneinla.blogspot.com and is a contributing blogger for LA Moms Blog. When she’s not writing she’s baking delightful gluten-free baked goods for www.yvonnesgfgoodies.com