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.



How Traveling to Peru Helped Me Not Give a ****

Peru December 2015 184I just flew back from a two-week tour of Peru. This was my fifteenth flight this year alone. Peru was also the eighth country and third continent I visited since January 2015.

How was my trip? In a nutshell, I’ve had everything happen to me.

I can say I’ve gone piranha fishing in the Amazon and nearly gotten my hands bitten off.

I’ve had monkeys crawling all over my body and clawing into my skin.

I was on a colliding train in the Sacred Valley and delayed for hours because they were trying to connect our train to another one. Like literally connect with old-fashioned rope.

I was on a plane ride from Cusco to Lima that was probably the scariest hour of my life and had everyone on the plane screaming in fear.

I lost my credit card and was stranded for hours at the airport because of it.

I got terrible food poisoning and dehydration because of it.

I was on a bus for 22 hours in which people were vomiting non-stop and I worried about falling off the side of the Andes.

On my last night there some drink idiot decided it would be fun to pee all over the beds in our room. While we were still in them.

Although this likely sounds like a list of rants (to all the haters out there, I’d bet you’d be complaining even more if all this stuff happened to you), I’ve done many fun things as well.

I visited ruins like Sacsaywaman and Huaca Pucllana that left me impressed at the intelligence of pre-Columbian civilisation, and ignited a new anger for what colonialism did.

I got to climb Machu Picchu on a sunny day, and imagined what life must have been like before the Inca were forced to leave this sacred city.

I spent three days in the Amazon Rainforest and lived beneath tarantulas that looked at me, bats that flew over my head at night, and macaws that tried eating my breakfast but at least cawed hi every morning.

I saw women dressing baby sheep and llamas in hats. This alone brought on many a fainting spell owing to cuteness.

I experienced the health care system in Peru and marvelled at how cheap it was for me to get good medicine, doctor visits, and vaccines without insurance. Granted it’s not the best health system but I like it better than my current health plan in Olympia.

Above all else, I experienced the kindness that other people had for one another as people tried to be as helpful as they could, and were genuinely interested in my life and what I had to say. I made awesome friends on the trip and talked to so many people.

Sometimes I wonder, with all the cool stuff I’ve done prior to these two weeks–and even during this trip–why my confidence levels are still low. Why do I care so damn much about what others think of me?

This trip, while it didn’t necessarily eradicate my low confidence levels, at least helped me evaluate them and gave me the courage to challenge them. I’d often have people ask me, “Are you really traveling alone? You must be very brave, I could never do that.” And although I didn’t always feel brave while flying, or while wondering when the operators would make the trains stop crashing into one another, or when catching piranhas and having them accidentally drop into our boat and trying to bite our feet, it did help me realize that I experienced those things anyway.

And I’ve survived.

What’s more, the clothes I wore for two weeks were anything but flattering. I was always in long sleeves and loose pants to avoid mosquito bites and help relieve some of the sweat of summer near the equator. My face burned a bright tomato red despite how much sunscreen I applied. My Spanish, although fluent, was imperfect and slow. My hair was always wild and sticking up everywhere. I never wore make-up except on the last two days of my trip. I knew I was un-sexy. But guess what? All of that cool and uncool stuff on that trip would’ve happened to me anyway, regardless of how I was dressed or what I looked like. I would’ve still had an adventure.

And overcoming these obstacles, with or without looking attractive, would’ve still allowed me to realize that I am capable of almost anything I set my mind to. I mean, if I can get lost in the rainforest with my tour group while avoiding stepping on a serpent or getting eaten by anacondas or bullet ants, then why the heck should I ever place doubt in my own abilities to do an amazing job in life? And why should I ever fear things like asking out cute guys or publishing a novel, when I can just go for it after all I’ve been through?

When walking through the underground catacombs at La Iglesia de San Francisco, seeing the astounding piles of bones that were the result of the devastation of the earthquake in the mid-1700s in Lima shocked me, but not because of the number. It was because each bone was indistinguishable from one another. It didn’t matter if these people each made mistakes or looked and felt pretty enough; those things never lasted. Life is just too short to be worried about petty things. Some day my bones will be decomposing as well, but will I have lived and loved enough and appreciated the person I was while alive?

When looking at the remains of ancient Peruvian civilisations at the National Museum of Archaeology, I realized the stories inherent in the struggles that the journey of life brings us. It made me realize how tough ancient Peruvians had to be, in order to endure their survival in spite of the onslaught of colonialism, and in order to preserve their native Quechua. I doubt it mattered how much make-up they had on or if they wore designer labels (although after this trip I’d be proud to wear the label “100% baby alpaca” cause that stuff is HELLA SOFT).

After a while, I found myself not carrying about what other people thought about my hair, clothes, or accent. I just went on an amazing trip and have awesome photos to prove it. I am fully adequate in my abilities as a human being; my job is not to be sexy for your viewing pleasure, I’m capable of way better than that.

To everyone who thinks it doesn’t matter what others care about you, you are mostly right–but still, don’t be a dick about it, because you shouldn’t pee on other people’s beds and then make public, inappropriate jokes about their virginity. Or take away their credit cards. Don’t forget to be kind in your quest to be your best self.