Speaking Spanish is a Personal Matter

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bilingual conversations, bilingualism

I grew up in a community where Spanish and English were spoken simultaneously. My parents were definitely Spanish-dominant in their fluency and identity as Mexican immigrants. Most of their friends spoke Spanish and were from Spanish speaking countries. As a child I had to learn which of our guests primarily spoke Spanish, which often times were also the ones I gave a kiss on the cheek instead of a handshake. I lived in a bilingual and bicultural environment, but with that came moments where I had to decipher whether to use Spanish or English. Many times I was slightly relieved to be able to speak English because I had, what many would call, a pocha version of Spanish fluency.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw my abuelita smoking. I yelled across the room in astonishment, “Abuelita tu smokas!” My family laughed and at the time it seemed like their laughter echoed throughout the house. I forgot about my feeling of astonishment and felt ashamed, ashamed to not now how to speak their Spanish.  It was about that time where I dreaded having to speak that other language to some of our monolingual Spanish-speaking guests or community members. It was about that time where sticking to one language became a strategy for me. I would remind myself that so-and-so only spoke or preferred Spanish, but with so-and-so English was okay.

These experiences have shaped the way I relate to being bilingual today. They relate to the ways I have decided to raise my daughter with multiple languages. Specifically, they relate to the ways I decide to communicate in Spanish or English with people in my life. With Sabrina, Spanish plays a very intimate role. Spanish is the language my mother used with me so in many ways the words flow naturally out of my mouth when I am interacting with my baby. I use Spanish freely to communicate with community members who I know are Spanish dominant in their proficiency. I have a really hard time speaking in Spanish to individuals who learned it while studying/working abroad or in school. I have a really hard time communicating with people who learned it because they love Spanish or languages. Speaking Spanish to me wasn’t a choice; it is a language I was born with.

When those individuals communicate with me in Spanish I find it to be an invasion of privacy. There is a clear distance between as — as acquaintance, as colleague, as a stranger-— and they have crossed that line. They don’t fit into my category as — guest, family member, or intimate friend. I revert to the uncomfortable tendencies toward languages and social situations as a child and cannot help but respond strictly in English. All the while hoping that they realize English is our established mode of communication and that Spanish is reserved for intimate relationships.

I have been thinking about why I choose to speak in Spanish to certain people but not to others. This has led me to question my own proficiency in Spanish because I feel uncomfortable speaking it in certain contexts, but what I have come to realize is that communicating in Spanish to me is very personal. I speak it well. I just prefer to share that intimate language I have history with, all of it connected to very special people in my life, rather than use it as if it were a skill I learned studying abroad or in school. It’s much more than that to me. It defines every fiber of my identity.

{photo by  celebdu}

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