English and Spanish

All around the world, people speak more than one language, but in the U.S., increasingly, speaking Spanish or anything besides English feels like a political act. We live in California, where my Guatemalan-born children frequently are assumed to speak Spanish. My daughter Olivia, who speaks quite well, describes this assumption as “triggering.” The other day, Olivia and I were chatting to each other in English while waiting to make a purchase at Macy’s. The cashier, a bilingual speaker, addressed Olivia directly and asked, “Hablas espaƱol?”

Olivia responded in Spanish, “Yes, a little,” and engaged in a short conversation to prove her cred. But the exchange bothered her. Later Olivia said, “The cashier wanted to see if I was one of ‘you’ or one of them ‘them.’ Why can’t I be both?” This happens to Olivia all the time: At her new large public high school, where teachers and students assume she’s fluent; in restaurants, where staff will speak to her in Spanish and me in English; in the aisles of the grocery store and Target, where strangers approach and ask her questions in Spanish. (“Do I look like I work here?” Olivia sometimes wonders.) For our kids from Guatemala, as for the politicians and other Latinos profiled in this excellent Washington Post article, Why Don’t You Speak Spanish?: For Julian Castro and Millions of Latinos, the Answer Is Not So Simple, speaking Spanish is considered a litmus test, a mark of authenticity. At the same time, in the United States, being bilingual often is viewed with suspicion and contempt.
Witness these sentences: “You’re in America. Speak English.”

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