At the January Town Hall I attended at The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute called “Nuestra Cultura” (Our Culture), the topic of language in the Latino community was discussed. Does not being able to speak Spanish make you any less Latino/Hispanic? I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic since then and wanting to write about it. My own experience learning Spanish kept coming back to me as I listened to several members of the Town Hall audience share their stories and opinions. Meanwhile, so many instances of Spanish language and what it means to the community have popped up in new articles and on social media. The Pew Research Center published some research on this and breaking it down many different ways. Overall, 71% of Latino adults say it is NOT necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino. Even Republican Presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Tex Cruz sparred a bit recently about speaking Spanish at a Republican debate in South Carolina!
When I was 6 years old, my family moved from Beltsville, Maryland to Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. I remember vividly walking into my first grad classroom at Cupeyville Elementary and not speaking a word of Spanish. My teacher spoke English and helped me maneuver getting set up in the classroom but I don’t remember anyone else speaking to me in English. It was frightening not being able to understand what was going on those first few weeks. I soon learned on the playground that my classmates were rather curious about the new “American” kid in the classroom. I was considered the American kid – because I only spoke English – even though my father was Mexican-American. Many of the kids were very kind to me and we got along using the universal language of playground games – jump rope and others – during recess. Meanwhile, I was like a sponge soaking up my classes in Spanish and learning to speak the language that I knew was my father’s first but I rarely heard him speak until we made the move to Puerto Rico.
By 4th grade, my parents moved me and my sisters to a Catholic school so we would be exposed to a religious education. All subjects were taught in Spanish except for Religion and English. Those two were taught by the Benedictine nuns at Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart) school. I was immersed in Spanish from the ages 6 to 12 and when we moved to Chicago, Illinois midway through my 7th grade year, I continued taking Spanish as an elective all through high school. Friends in high school would say it was an easy “A” for me every time they would see Spanish on my schedule. But I begged to differ. Once, after this statement was made to me I asked my friend, “don’t you take an English class?” She said, “yes, you know I do…I sit right next to you!” I grinned and asked her “do you get all A’s?” To which she replied…”good one…”
Having a second language has been a great benefit all my life. When I was a senior in high school, I took a school sponsored trip with a few classmates to Mexico. My friends relied heavily on me during that trip. One day we were looking for a market and two friends found a policeman and started asking him for directions. They were supposed to be practicing their Spanish but were struggling so they pulled me up and I began asking for help and directions. When I had finished he answered me in perfect English! It was rather amusing – my friends asked him, “why didn’t you tell us you spoke English?” He said, “you didn’t ask?”
Living in the suburbs of Chicago, there were times I would be called upon to help interpret or translate Spanish. It didn’t happen very often, but it was great fun when it did happen confirming further how fortunate I was to be bilingual. I know my father was happy me and my sisters were getting exposure to Spanish. He was always such a proponent of language and was self-taught in several. He was equally happy that we were able to speak to our grandmother – nana – in Spanish when we would call her in New Mexico. If I ever started speaking English to her, she would simply say “en español” – meaning “in Spanish,” so I would respect this request and return to speaking Spanish.
When I moved to Birmingham, Alabama in 1980, I encountered no Spanish speakers…for a long time. I would look for ways to hear Spanish and with cable television – again this was the mid-1980s – I was able to get the WGN Chicago station and a Saturday morning show called “Charlando.” This was a long-running Spanish-language community affairs “chat” and the guy who hosted the show spoke SO fast that it was a challenge to understand him at times. My father even said to me one Saturday, “if you can understand what he is saying, then you are doing quite well.!” That made me feel good! Of course, in the late 1990s through early 2000s, the Hispanic population in the Birmingham region grew tremendously and it was not unusual to go to the local mall and hear Spanish being spoken. It was like music to my ears and always made me smile as I eavesdropped just a little.
Now after almost 15 years of involvement with the Hispanic community in Birmingham, Most of my Latino friends know I speak Spanish but there are some who are still surprised when I do. I was at a Hispanic event last fall when I joined a group of friends in Spanish conversation. On the way to my car later, one of the women said to me in Spanish – “Teresa, I had no idea you could speak Spanish like that!” I said, “Yes, I’m just full of surprises!” I do look for opportunities to speak Spanish. You would think it would be easy these days but English always seems to override.
Looking back, I’ve had varied experiences being bilingual. Some would say that I’m not bilingual “enough,” while others say I speak just fine. It all depends on who you are, I suppose. And all this goes back to the original question I posed…does a Latino need to speak Spanish to be considered Latino? I identify as Latina and have done so for a long time. So, how much Spanish is enough? I will explore this multi-layered subject more in future posts.