For almost a year, I have debated whether or not I should even bring up my attitude towards speaking a foreign language in a predominately English-speaking country; however, after reading the book Caramelo and then feeling smad about the negative reactions to the beautiful Coke Cola commercial during the Super Bowl on Sunday, I felt it was time to really speak up on my experience growing up between two languages.
I was born into a Spanish-speaking household. My grandparents spoke only Spanish (they lived in the United States for over 25 years and are American citizens) and managed to raise three children in the American public school systems. My mother and father speak English and Spanish but choose to only speak to their kids in Spanish. This allowed us to learn something about our culture and be able to communicate with the rest of the family. My sister and brother dabbled in Bilingual education (five weeks) but my mother was appalled by the Spanish-speaking teacher who didn’t know the difference between ud. and tu. When I came along, my brother and sister spoke English but never in the house. It just wasn’t allowed. In 1989, everything changed. We moved into a new housing track in a new city. Our new neighborhood was a mixture of cultures. Alyson, a neighbor, was the first person to talk to me in English and felt it was necessary for me to learn English. In order to succeed in this country, I would have to speak English.
I would like to expand that school of though, believe that in order to succeed in this world, we, as human beings, need to know multiple languages in order to better understand one another. Humans have always been xenophobic. Everywhere I turn, I experience the mentality of us vs. them. I, myself, have been a victim and have victimized someone. It hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I have missed out on opportunities to meet new people, go to new places, and experience new things. Why? Because of fear. We all have a fear the unknown. But we can over come our fear.
How are we survive if we continually promote fear instead of understanding? I live in Southern California where many people attribute California to a melting pot. Can I just say how much I hate that term, “melting pot”. It’s an icky word implying that someday we will just become one big ass assimilation. Eww, no. Let’s not melt. Keep your oozing self over there. Instead let’s celebrate our diversity. Let’s be like a fucking potato salad. You need a multitude ingredients to make potato salad, I think. For the record I don’t eat or make it but I do know that no ingredient is better than the other; the ingredients work together, and if one ingredient is missing, it is a disaster. That’s how I view the world but that wasn’t the point of the post so back to my experience.
Speaking two countries makes me unique in this country. I can converse with a multitude of people yet at times I am made invisible. A joy of a dual-speaker or maybe a tri-speaker is when people are talking about you or another person. It’s happens a lot. I’ve stood there, silently, either laughing inside because someone has put their foot in their mouths and they don’t even know it yet OR crying on the inside as someone is being a horrible human being and talking shit. But the worst is when you truly do not have a voice.
One of my first jobs (I think I was 19) was working in a fabric warehouse, less than 10 miles away from my suburban home. I was interviewed in Spanish, so I responded in Spanish. Less than 30 minutes into the interview, I had gotten the job, and was put on the floor to work. I was paid cash. I didn’t know any better. No one had prepared me for the fact that if I spoke Spanish without an accent, I would be thought of as an illegal. It was a factory job, so I went in jeans and a holey t-shirt. I remember getting hurt when a pallet fell on my leg. I told the floor manager, in Spanish, but she didn’t care. So I went back to work. During lunch and breaks we would eat on top of the pallets full of fabric. I’d blow my nose and this black soot/dirty would come out. It was at one of those lunches on the pallets, that a co-worker asked me where I was born and when I “came over.” Again, naively, I answered how I was born in California and that I hadn’t “come over” as I have “always” been here. I was fired that day. I lasted five days on the job.
I’m not the only one to experience this isolation. One of my co-workers, Oscar, was drunk at work (not during his work hours). He was quiet, not hurting anyone, but people, they were drinking as well, freaked out; to them he wasn’t talking coherently. But he was. They just couldn’t understand him. He was speaking in Spanish. And often he is the one that accommodates co-workers by speaking in English. It’s a bit mocho (meaning butchered) but hey he puts in an effort so why can’t others?. This man, this wonderful person, was lost. Drunk but lost to others. But no one cared. He was a nuisance to people. It was a simple, he is speaking in Spanish and I don’t understand. I’m afraid of him now. Send him home. And they did. But he came back. He was shoo-ed away. Oscar ended up on the streets, walking in the middle of the streets. I didn’t see that part. I had assumed, the boss (someday I will write about the boss) had taken him home. But he didn’t. Oscar had slipped out the side door. When I left work, I found Oscar stumbling in front of a YMCA. It was 10PM and I had a 30 minute drive home. I allowed my instincts to kick in: I pulled over and just stood in the cold, talking to Oscar. He was crying, asking why did no one ever ask him what he wanted or what he did over the weekend? Why did no one ever ask him for his opinions? Why was he only supposed to take orders and not have a conversation? I couldn’t answer him. I could only do what I thought was best which was to listen to him.