** Today’s post contains my thoughts on speaking Spanish as the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
I’m getting personal today to share more about myself, where I come from and some complicated feelings I have about language.
My first language was Spanish. I learned English when I was about 5 years old when my family moved to Phoenix from Mexico. My parents encouraged me to learn to speak English well so that I’d be successful, and I did just that. My mom has shared a story with me about my first days as a student in the U.S., when I would cry as we waited for the school bus because I could not speak English and communicate with the other kids. I was enrolled in ESL classes at school and I quickly transitioned out of them and into the English-speaking classroom. At home, I would speak Spanish to my parents (and still do), because that is their primary language, but my sisters and I spoke (and still speak) English to one another. I felt a desire to fit in with other students, and the way to do that, in my mind, was by showing that I could speak English. I worked so hard to learn the rules of the English language and I became an excellent speller. Over the years I also developed a love of writing. I dreamed of becoming a magazine writer and I interned at several publications in college. My trajectory eventually shifted to editing and that’s what I do for a living now besides creating content for this website. Now, I am married to someone who speaks English, and we primarily speak English in our home with our daughters. As you can probably tell, English is the language I feel most comfortable with. All of my thoughts are in English and that’s why I blog and communicate mostly in English.
When someone I don’t know speaks Spanish to me, I respond in Spanish, but if I initiate a conversation, it’s always in English just because that’s what feels natural to me; it’s my instinct. I sometimes feel embarrassed about not speaking proper Spanish to Spanish speakers, so I avoid it. I also often feel judged, whether it’s in my head or not. To be fair, most people don’t care. But I sometimes get the feeling people become disappointed when I mostly speak English to them or when my Spanish is not up to their standards. No, my Spanish is not that bad and I can communicate, but it’s not perfect. I often struggle to translate words.
I also feel judged sometimes by people who only speak English when they ask whether I am teaching my daughters Spanish. Or when I am asked how to say something in Spanish and I don’t know a certain word. (The answer to the question about teaching my daughters Spanish is that I’d like to.)
I want to improve my Spanish, I really do. I don’t enjoy seeing my grandma (I call her Nana) sit quietly while her grandkids speak English around her. I try as much as I can to speak to her in Spanish, but I need to improve.
Maybe this is all in my head, but I often feel pressure to reflect whatever vision of our heritage others think I should represent. The fact that I don’t speak proper Spanish or use it in every situation does not make any less proud of my heritage. We need to stop expecting people of all ethnicities/nationalities/backgrounds to act a certain way, look a certain way or speak a certain way.
I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Many Latinos (and I’m sure many children of immigrants) have felt like they had to assimilate by learning English and in the process forgot or never actually learned their parents’ language. We struggle with our identity. We could all use more understanding and less judgment for how we speak and the language(s) we use to communicate. We could use more understanding and acceptance of our identities and our struggles with them.
Thank you for reading.