The Countee Cullin Library in Harlem, NY
Living in Harlem, NY, at that time, made my father very paranoid and afraid that one day I might get hooked on drugs, be involved in a gang, or engage in some other type of criminal activity. Therefore, he kept a very close eye on my younger brother and me sheltering us from the streets.
I didn't know it at the time, but my father let me get away with one thing I did presumably behind his back. There were items that I used to sneak into the house for self indulgence. Those items were books. At the age of 10 and 11, I was teaching myself how to speak Spanish. The reason I surreptitiously taught myself Spanish was because of my father's straight-laced academic outlook on language learning.
One day, I was browsing the children's shelves of Harlem's famous Countee Cullen's library near my home, and ran across a book entitled Fun With Spanish. Exhilarated, I brought the book home and immediately began to study it in the living room while my younger brother watched TV, and my father, an avid reader, indulged himself in his reading material.
Every time I learned a new word from that children’s book, I recited it to my father who himself learned French, and some German, while being stationed in Europe while in the US Army. He even taught me a few words in both languages, and that gave me the false impression that he would be so pleased at my learning Spanish. Instead, he burst my bubble insisting that I learn English first. That did not make any sense at the time because English was the only language I knew; so I thought (with my Ebonics speaking self). Today, as an adult, I can see his point of view because if you get a grasp on English grammar, learning other languages comes much easier because so many of your language books use English grammar as a reference point to queue you in on the grammar of your new language.
However, I felt overwhelmed by all of my Puerto Rican neighbors and schoolmates who spoke Spanish around me. As a child, I thought it was so cool to be able to speak a second language, and Spanish was my choice. I was not going to let my father stop me. In my exuberance, I would approach every child who appeared to be Puerto Rican, even strangers, and practice what I learned on them.
In the sixth grade I befriended Carlos Bettencourt, a Puerto Rican classmate and visited his home every day after school where Spanish was spoken with his family. Carlos later suggested that I start a pen pal relationship with a female cousin of his in Puerto Rico. His mother used to invite me to her church in nearby Spanish Harlem so I could be totally immersed in the language. It was this experience that makes so many Latin-American people today, even as far away as Perú and Ecuador where I visited on multiple occasions, suspect that I too might be Puerto Rican. It was my accent..A co-worker who comes directly from the island of Puerto Rico, told me that I sound more like a Nuyorican (a New York Puerto Rican).
Finally, one day, my younger brother struck up a conversation with my father about his foreign language skills. I don’t remember how this topic brought me into the conversation, but my father told my brother, emphatically, that Billy ( referring to me) studies Spanish. Immediately, I began to wonder how in hell does he know? My father knew it all the time because I was not as slick as I thought. He did what every responsible, attentive parent does, inspect my room when I was not around looking for contraband like weapons, drugs, or cigarettes. The only thing that he found was my Spanish-learning material. Surprisingly, he never made a big deal out of it. The only reason why he told me to learn English first was to stop me from interrupting his reading to practice my Spanish on him. He felt better when I told him that I was practicing on the Puerto Ricans.