A Gringa in Little Puerto Rico

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Living in downtown Orlando gave me some opportunities to speak Spanish, but it turns out that they were miniscule compared to the practice I’m going to get in my new neighborhood. A month ago, my family moved to the south side of town, closer to where I grew up. I feel comfortable living over here, everything we do is more convenient to our house, and we found a great Montessori school for Isaiah. I didn’t expect to be surprised by much, least of all the presence of such a large Spanish-speaking (mostly Puerto Rican) population. After all, they jokingly call this part of Orlando “little Puerto Rico.”

It has managed to surprise me, however. I officially feel like the minority, and my gringa status has brought plenty of questions to the surface already. 

First, there are the countless service personnel who have shown up of late: the pest control guy, the cable guy, the refrigerator delivery guys, the lawn maintenance guys. All Spanish speakers, all assuming I speak Spanish when they read my last name but then immediately struggling to use English when they see a white woman answer the door. When I indicate that I do, in fact, speak Spanish, they respond in one of two ways: 1) use a few words of SLOW Spanish and wait to gauge my level of understanding or 2) take a full-on nosedive into a Spanish-only conversation and appear relieved to be able to use their native language.

The reason this has me questioning my mode of interaction is that sometimes I want to feel comfortable and not be the one doing the “work” of speaking a second language. If I reveal that I speak Spanish, then it seems a given that I MUST thereafter respond only in Spanish and sometimes struggle with vocabulary I don’t regularly use (anyone know how to say “weed eater” in Spanish??). If I don’t reveal that fact, I feel like I’m being disingenuous and rude for making the person fight to speak English.

Another situation in which I’ve found myself feeling surprisingly uncomfortable is when I’m in public and not really trying to eavesdrop, but I am. Por ejemplo, in line at the grocery store, when the cashier is speaking to the customer in front of me in Spanish. The other day, I got somewhat patronizing smiles as two women had a long (too long for the checkout line!) Spanish conversation about Hispanics and the election. The second I stepped up to check out, the cashier switched and said “Hello, how are you today?” I felt awkward having understood every word of her previous conversation, but she had no idea. There’s clearly no need for me to say that I speak Spanish in that moment, but I always feel a fleeting conflict. Especially if said conversation seems to be what’s making the difference between my picking my son up on time and showing up just late enough to be last in the car line.

Perhaps what I am truly dealing with is the ever-present tendency we have to judge each other’s ethnicity and change our communication styles accordingly. While this can be a great skill, there are times when it can backfire. I hope that the shock of finding out that I speak their language has made some of my neighbors think twice about assuming that gringos do not understand them or, more importantly, do not want to meet them halfway.

Is it too much for me to ask, though, for them to meet ME in the middle? Somehow, talking about drain lines and water bugs in Spanish feels harder than writing a college paper for Spanish grammar class!

What do you think? Should I feel obligated to speak Spanish just because I can?

{Image via digitizedchaos}

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