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.