Bilingual is Better

Photo credit: Poldavo (Alex)

As the rapid influx of Spanish speakers transforms the American populace, I stand between two cultures, two languages, two peoples, simultaneously grateful for and bitter about the prejudice that grows with the numbers.

I think it is important that everyone experience being a member of the minority. Speaking Spanish has provided me this opportunity: under the guise of my gringa appearance, I carry around a sensitivity for and understanding of Latino culture that others don’t expect me to have. I am often the ethnic minority in a group of Latinos and the linguistic minority amongst my own family and friends. Although I do not deal with discrimination as do minorities who physically stand out, I frequently feel isolated and preoccupied with the image I am projecting with my words.

When Spanish speakers hear me saying “¡cuídate!” instead of “careful!” to Isaiah, they seem taken aback. Instead of a friendly reaction, I usually get questions or stares first. Occasionally, I have a positive experience, such as when Isaiah finds a Spanish-speaking amiga at the playground and I have a friendly conversation with her mother. While I feel completely comfortable conversing, reading, and singing in Spanish at home, I am reminded of how out of place my language use seems when I interact with my son, and try to interact with others, in public.

The situation is reversed when my English-speaking neighbors hear us speaking Spanish while we’re playing in the driveway or walking the dog. We receive questions and stares, and only rarely an encouraging comment. I wish I didn’t feel the need to justify an ultimately personal choice by explaining that Isaiah is of Hispanic descent, but I often catch myself doing just that. His heritage is only part of why I speak Spanish with him, but it is the easiest answer to the quizzical frown on someone’s face. Language is perhaps the most blatant ingredient in communication, and makes it difficult to ignore even implied questions.

No matter the ways in which my immersion in various traditions directs my life, it will never produce quite the level of confusion for me as it likely will for my son. I grew up in upper-middle-class white America, and never questioned who I was (at least from an ethnic perspective). I worry that I may not be able to guide my son through any future identity crisis because I never struggled with this type of complexity. Not only does he know two or more words for every thing in his world; he has two names (Isaiah and Isaias), two immediate families, and distinct facial features that prompt bold assumptions from strangers. I can only imagine what difficulties these factors will present for him when he starts school and, worse, enters adolescence. The days of moving effortlessly from one group of kids to another on the playground may very well disappear.

Still, I am optimistic about the potential that being in-between may afford my child in the long run, because no amount of self-conscious worry could make me decide to stop hablando español.

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