One of the challenges of being a not-so-perfect Spanish speaker teaching my toddler Spanish is that I am self-conscious of how I sound in public. I really liked Susan’s blogpost last week about being complimented on her accent and her point that accents are nothing be ashamed of. However, I was born in El Salvador, and as a Latina, people often expect me to speak Spanish well. The fact that we immigrated here before my first birthday is really not something that people can tell just by looking at me, nor would it matter, since many Latinas/os encounter the expectation to speak en español because of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds regardless of where they were born.
Unlike some friends and family I know who have no interest in Spanish, because they are “American” (their words), I have a huge interest, despite my small actual talent. I know the English language intimately as a writer and English professor, and wish I was half as comfortable in Spanish. I believe it was Isabel Allende who said that although she writes in English as well as Spanish that she cooks, dreams, and makes love in Spanish. I only wish that I was so deeply bilcutural as she. I call my daughter “Mi Vida,” “Mi Cielo,” Mi Reina,” in attempts to help her feel love in Spanish, so that one day she might “love in Spanish.”
The knowledge that my Spanish should be better than it is makes me very self-aware in public. When we encounter Spanish-speakers in public, whether at the farmer’s market, baby boutique, or check-out line, I actually have to decide whether or not to speak to them in Spanish. Generally, if I respond in English, that’s how the conversation proceeds, but if I respond in Spanish then Marisol and I both get to practice our Spanish. It might seem like a no-brainer, but the hesitation comes from the fear that I might stumble and say the wrong thing or not fully understand the other person. Largely, it is shame that I am so clearly a gringa when it comes to language. It’s the double-edge of being “in between” cultures–I want to be accepted as Latina y Americana, but really, don’t quite fit either category. While it may sometimes feels wonderful to be both/and, it stings to feel neither/nor!
In college, I was particularly chagrined to meet classmates who were Anglos, born and raised in Northern California, who spoke beautiful Spanish and traveled to Central America regularly out of a love for the culture and people. I am embarrassed (albeit grateful to him) to admit that I was taught by a tall, lanky, blond boy how to make pupusas! Here, my family always bought our pupusas, and when we visited El Salvador, las muchachas made them for us! For non-Latinos, even broken Spanish is viewed as admirable, but for Latinos broken Spanish or American-accented Spanish is often viewed as a desgracia.
But all this cultural angst really means nothing to my two-year old. In her eyes, I am the model of language, and everything else! So I try to remind myself to see myself through her eyes and not let my baggage get in the way of relishing Espanol. She will not judge me or correct me. All I have to do is be brave and do my best. What better lesson can there to be to teach her? Isn’t that what I expect of her?