Op-Ed Trevino: I'm Totally Latina...But --- No, I Don't Speak Spanish

Posted: Apr 16 2014

A simple enough question I am asked from time to time. "Do you speak Spanish?"  Well, the answer to the linguistic query is, quite simply, no. No, I do not speak Spanish. 

My answer often elicits either a pressed-lip solemn shake of the head or an outright, disbelieving, arched-eyebrow gasp. To which I reiterate, yes, it’s true, I am a Latina estranged from her mother tongue. 

I try to shake it off with a crooked grin and mutter something about errant parents or being tongue-tied since birth. It’s a cop out, I know, but what is that question about anyway? Why is it being asked? And why does my negative response produce a wave of disapproval? It’s as if, somehow, I’ve fallen from my ethnic grace. Have I? 

Do I wish I had learned Spanish as a child? 
Certainly. But there are reasons why it wasn’t in the cards for me (and possibly others who share my similar no-Español status). In a word, assimilation. Turns out, when and where you’re a kid matters a great deal. For me, it was the 1970s in Houston, Texas. I was the only child to a postman and an aspiring white collar government worker. I only heard Spanish spoken intermittently when my parents wanted to speak “privately” or when, once or twice a year, we visited our Spanish-speaking extended family residing in other corners of the state. So my childhood was not just “English dominant,” it was an “English only” world. There were times when my parents attempted to right the English only wrong. The first time was around first grade when my parents enrolled me in a magnet school specializing in bi-lingual instruction. However, when I reported for that first grade class, I learned that the bi-lingual was for Spanish-speaking kids who were having a tough time with English. I did not share in that obstacle. And English-only persisted.

Do I hope to attain fluency in Spanish? 
Over the years, my desire to learn has waxed and waned. Basically, as an English-only, accent-free Latino, I didn’t see the value in acquiring the language. I didn’t watch Spanish TV, listen to Spanish radio or live in neighborhoods dominated by Spanish-speaking populations. But my stance on this has evolved, too. And now, I do want to learn Spanish. I see there’s so much I’m missing. 

In a word, communication. With older generations in my family, with fellow Latino strangers who approach me for translation help, or to join in with any new Spanish-speaking community. I can report, at least, that years of Spanish in high school and in college, along with some visits to Spanish-speaking countries has equipped with some type of trippy communication that, while broken and hard to hear for natives, can at least gain their generous sympathy for attempting to try (along with my obviously self-conscious struggling).

Does language acquisition (or lack thereof) make one a lesser Latina? 
To some, not having the language does make you less Latino. I reject that notion. (Not surprisingly.) Tolerance and inclusion needs to come from all directions, regardless of which language came first.


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