How Spanish Allowed Me to Find Myself

I remember uncomfortably watching a home video of myself when I was five years old. It was my sister’s baptism in March of 1995, and in her honor my parents threw a party to celebrate. The camera panned to all the different guests assembled at the party—some of them uncles and cousins, some neighbors, and some family friends. The camera man, my dad’s cousin, spoke to all the relatives in Spanish and asked them what they were up to.

The time arrived for presents. I was waiting excitedly in front of the wrapped gifts, and my baby sister was in my mother’s arms as one of our relatives helped open the cards and gifts on the table. The most uncomfortable part of this entire event—the cringe-worthy part that made it really painful to watch myself—was how awkward I was with my language at that young age. I was in kindergarten at the time but rapidly learning English, and with it came the awkward experimental language phase as I tried to make sense of the world around me.

“Wow, that’s a big fish!” I exclaimed when a large box is set on the table.

My mother and the guests gave each other weird looks, and on camera my mom said, “Okay…” whilst giving me an odd look before moving on.

Children sometimes say the strangest things when they are young. An external witness may have automatically assumed that my grasp of the language was poor; the gifts were not fish, and I had no idea what I was talking about. For all I know I could have been making a metaphor like Pablo Neruda or Gabriela Mistral, my inner poet already emerging at the tender, young age of 5.

Language is often associated with power in the United States. An immigrant who does not already understand English finds multiple roadblocks to acquiring a job, making friends, voting, and simply making oneself understood. I have a vast amount of relatives who have never learned English despite living decades in this country, and although the system brands them as unintelligent and stubborn because “they should have learned English by now,” I can understand how hard it is—and still is, twenty years later—to learn English. And yet the power and prestige exists like a carrot dangling in front of all of us, no matter how evolved our expertise is. And yet, this falsely advertised “diverse” government wonders why we often want to bite the hand that holds that elusive carrot.

My first known recollection of language and power occurred when I was that same age as in that uncomfortable home video. Even though my kindergarten teacher did not know Spanish, I somehow managed to learn English in the year I spent in Ms. Willcut’s classroom. We often had teacher’s aids that communicated with us and would separate us occasionally by language ability. When it came time to enter the first grade, we had a choice. Parents could either continue to place their children in the bilingual track, or in the English-only track.

I do not actively remember learning English, but I do remember the prestige that came about with knowing it. My elementary school had widely mixed demographics, the vast majority of us being Latino, Black, and East Asian. Only a very small percentage of students were White. It was quite common to segregate into different groups on the playground. I would often hang out with the other Latina girls as we all played hand or rhyming games in Spanish, such as “A la rueda de San Miguel.” As I learned more English later on, I also learned more ways to communicate with the other children in the class, and eventually these hand games were forgotten in favor of English ones. Ultimately even in sport and fun, the English language wielded its power over the Spanish.

Colonialism still lives on.

I have memories of arguing and crying to my mother because she insisted I stay on the bilingual track for three years instead of one. In the context of the community, the bilingual track was considered the “stupid kid” track, because it was implied that we were not smart enough to learn English as quickly as the other students. Even though we covered more or less the same material as the other classes, I felt that we were looked down upon for our perceived lack of language abilities. Much like how my relatives are ridiculed in society for their perceived inability to learn English, I felt being in the class was a slap in the face to my own skill set, and that I was being held back by having to answer in two languages instead of the dominant one. Even at a young age I had a sense of feeling held back for a cultural reason.

In retrospect, I am thankful to my mother for agreeing to place me in bilingual education as long as possible. I have retained my Spanish-speaking abilities while developing my English, and I have also managed to grasp a better hold on grammar and sentence mechanics. I have been told in my adulthood that being fluent in two languages is a great asset when considering where to work, whether the “other” language is Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Somalian, or some other tongue that forms part of the Tower of Babel that is the United States, whether people want to admit it or not that our country is that way. Whereas in my childhood I have shunned my Spanish-speaking side as inferior, in my adulthood I have come to more closely embrace this aspect of me, and view it as an asset like I was supposed to years ago. Spanish is beautiful, Spanish is articulate, Spanish is romantic, Spanish is precise in its meaning and passionate in its directness. It is not this ugly, brown, alien thing that people have synonymized with drug deals, teenage pregnancy, over-sexualization, farm labor, and ignorance.

I still witness this power culture associated with the English language, but if my experiences have proven anything it is that I possess power in knowing a second language. I have acquired a key of access to the doors of millions of people throughout the world, and like other countries outside of the United States I can appreciate the dexterity and skill associated with being bilingual. I can admire the words of Pablo Neruda when he stated that poetry and life were in search of him, as the words carried its own unique punch in the original Spanish that English somehow could not do justice to. I can understand the metaphors of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Cervantes, or Paulo Coehlo, when in their characters’ quests through life they found a piece of themselves.

Spanish has enabled me to find a piece of myself, too.



The Third Space

The Third Space.

In Spanish, we have a saying that describes what the “American Experience” is for Latinos: “Ni de aca ni de alla.” Neither here nor there. One foot on either side, never wholly in one space, never wholly feeling like we belong. For many Latinos, this means being seen in American culture as–to put it bluntly–an alien.

“Oh, where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?”

“Do you know that everyone on this show looks like you?”

And so on and so on.

Likewise, whenever I visit El Salvador I’m welcomed by my family, but I’m never really “one of them.”

“Oh, your cousins don’t want to go THERE. Take them to the mall or McDonald’s. Somewhere more American.”

“Que dijistes? What did you say? I can’t understand your accent.”

This is sometimes said of my sister, who is the most Americanized out of all of us and is treated and revered like an American for her whiter skin and Westernized attitudes. As a result, my relatives try hardest to make her happy, which only echoes what I’ve seen other Latinos do to accommodate Americans.

What does any of this have to do with the so-called “Third Space”? In my experience being in the Master in Teaching program, I find myself privy to falling into this Third Space. As a masters student, I am exposed to a constant influx of pedagogy and philosophy. Names like Vygotsky, bell hooks, Jean Anyon, H. Richard Milner–all swim through the subconscious of our curriculum like fish at sea we catch and put into our ever-growing fish tank we need to maintain and take care of. We get bombarded with social justice curricula. We attend conferences and training to encourage us to push our thinking and our beliefs. We stay up doing homework and give up precious time with loved ones to write critical memos, essays, our inquiry-driven thesis papers.

We rethink schools.

By contrast, our school lives have different expectations of us. We are asked to differentiate, to discipline, to divulge into the school’s curriculum. We sacrifice precious time with our loved ones to grade papers and plan lessons. We are asked to think outside the box, collaborate, to be on time, to give 110% even if we are already giving 100% elsewhere.

We teach.

We rethink schools.

But the Third Space–that in-between in the Venn diagram linking Masters work with School work–is always there, constantly staring at us and analyzing us like a third eye. We are called to be masters students, but also teachers. We have to find ways to incorporate both what we learn in our program and the school’s culture. We sometimes even have to balance social justice in places that see justice as equality, not equity–as colorblindness, not racism.

My experience in the Third Space made me feel like I was in the Twilight Zone. Last Fall, we were taking time out of our lesson on something we did in English Language Arts to present a PowerPoint on bullying. The high school I was in tries to bring attention to justice issues in various ways, and pushes teachers to be aware of stereotypes we may not be aware of. The school, like many in Western Washington, is also predominantly White. Unsurprisingly, so was my mentor teacher. It was therefore no surprise that the following exchange occurred when the conversation shifted toward stereotypes:

“Okay, so this is why we don’t do stereotypes. Let’s say you,” pointing toward a Vietnamese-American student in the middle of the room, “were stereotyped with always getting good grades in math. That is a prevailing stereotype, if I thought —- is really smart because she’s Asian.” My mentor never even bothered to ask —- about her cultural heritage. How did she know she wasn’t Pacific Islander?

Another time, we had an English Language Learner in a different class period. I asked my mentor where she was from, in case there were accommodations I could make to the curriculum.

“I think she’s from China,” replied my mentor two weeks into the school year, when she had time to research these things. She was also working on her ELL certification at the same time.

I checked the computer system later just to be sure. The student was from Vietnam, not China.

The reason these two scenarios put me in the Third Space was because I was torn. I was taught to never essentialise based on one person’s experiences, and here was this student being asked to represent all students who looked like her in the stereotype of being smart. I was taught to never judge what a student “is” ethnically because everyone’s experience is different, and here was a student being essentialised based on what she looked like. I was taught  to speak up for injustices, and here I was unable to say a word because I didn’t have a job yet, I wasn’t a teacher yet according to my mentor, and my enrollment in my masters program depended upon this assignment. I had no power, and I had no way to bring this up without getting blamed for being racist, or judging my mentor, or having this all be my fault in some twisted way I couldn’t fathom, as people of color are often victimized whenever these matters are brought up. As I had been victimized by bringing it up on a different occasion. I was neither here nor there.

“Ni de aca ni de alla.”

I anticipate yet another ten weeks of being in this Third Space. Like my experiences as a Salvadoran American, I have impossibly difficult expectations placed on me. But there is a strange beauty to being part of two worlds. It is the realization that I have experiences that are unique to who I am, and that can help me empathized with students like the one I mentioned, who are sometimes made to be alien and sometimes feel torn between two worlds that are each a part of who they are. I wonder, in my perceived lack of social privilege, how many teachers out there actually feel PRIVILEGED enough to understand these struggles, and how many are privileged enough to know we one day have the power to be the change we wish to see in the world, to put an end to racial stereotypes that place us in this difficult position to begin with.

I know how to be in the Third Space.

I know how to be neither here nor there.


Studying for CBEST

I’ve thought about teaching in the public school system for a while, but didn’t really give it much thought until just recently. I have a number of friends who graduated college with Education degrees and are now working for Teach for America, or are doing internships at their local public schools. I didn’t prepare myself for this in my undergrad because I had entirely different plans for myself: A possible internship at a publishing company in New York City, several freelance opportunities at various newspapers; the list goes on. 

Sadly things didn’t work out as planned–oh, the surprises of life–and now I am considering other possible alternatives towards a future career.

Since returning to California a year ago and moving back in with my parents, it seems like the only possible jobs I could get were teaching jobs. I’ve had a few semesters’ worth of teaching experience at USC, and two summers ago I was a Creative Arts instructor for a Christian summer camp. That experience landed me a few private tutoring jobs in my neighborhood, as well as my current experience with a Special Education company dealing with Autistic children. The pay is more than minimum wage, but the fact is that these jobs are only available part-time for me, and I’m looking into a little more stability in life without as much of the driving.

Hence why I am considering substitute teaching. Up to this point, most of my teaching has not been within a classroom, unless you count the USC experience where I was equipped with a team of fellow colleagues and it was a collaborative group effort. I have not yet experienced a classroom full of students with me, and only me, as their educator. And before I want to commit myself to thousands of dollars’ worth of tuition money for a Master’s or teaching credentials, I want to make sure that this is a good fit, because not only will this be a career path, but most importantly I will impact the lives of many young people who will ultimately need my help to get to college and beyond. They need someone who actually likes her job and can do it well, and I want to be sure of these two things before I can afford to let anyone down.

I will probably post updates on my progress studying for the CBEST, but I’d like to know: Any educators out there who can give me some good advice? And has anyone taken the CBEST and what is it like?