One fine afternoon, I was on an elevator in my office building in Oakland, CA, I tried to strike up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a gentleman wearing an outfit typically worn by farmers or ranchers in Mexico. He looked me up and down with contempt and asked me in perfect English, "what, you're learning Spanish?" By this time, the elevator reached his floor and he stepped off visibly agitated. I'm thinking, man, what is "his" problem?
Ever since I was a child, I've always thought it was so cool to speak a second language. Because I lived around so many Puerto Ricans in New York City, Spanish was the most logical and practical choice. However, as I began teaching myself Spanish out of a children's library book, I became flustered when my Puerto Rican neighbors and schoolmates consistently answered me in English, and hell, with New York accents.
Because I lived around so many Puerto Ricans in New York City, Spanish was the most logical and practical choice of a second language.
This frustration followed me all the way into my adulthood. I began thinking; perhaps, Latinos were ashamed of being Latino and simply wanted to assimilate into American society forgetting their language and culture. Finally, I began asking Latinos friends for the real story. Their answers varied. Many do not want to be stereotyped as Spanish-only or illegal immigrants. Others might get a sense that their English is better than my Spanish, thus would be easier to communicate in English. And there was one response that made the greatest sense of all; if they are learning English, they needed the practice. However, the biggest shocker, speaking of stereotypes, is the fact that there are Latinos growing up in the U.S. whose Spanish is limited, thus, do not feel comfortable speaking Spanish unless they are talking with a monolingual Spanish speaker, preferably a relative. And there those of Latin-American ancestry who don't speak Spanish at all.
I learned that there are Latinos growing up in the U.S. whose Spanish is limited or don't speak any Spanish at all.
For these reasons, I chose to get out more. I mean, out of the country. My first experience of Spanish immersion out of the country was in Cancún, Mexico where I had a 24-hour layover for my next flight to Havana, Cuba. In Cancún, everyone was pleased that I was speaking Spanish; the people at the airport, the cab drivers, the hotel clerks, and the restaurant workers. By the time I arrived in Cuba, I was warmed up.
The University of Havana, Cuba
In Cuba, I was taking a Spanish intensive course at the University of Havana through the Global Exchange organization based in San Francisco. Global Exchange sends Americans to Cuba for various programs such as language, music and dance, and bicycle tours. One day, a Cuban citizen struck up a conversation with me in English. My mind flashed back to the gentleman on the elevator thinking he may have felt stereotyped as Spanish-only and wanted to put me in my place. Well, I began to feel the same sense of indignation with this Cuban stranger assuming I’m an English-only gringo.
Now, I'm getting a taste of how many Latinos in the U.S, perhaps, were feeling when I would speak to them in Spanish.
I was gritting my teeth, and in my mind, saying to myself that I’m going to teach his narrow ass a lesson. For everything he says in English, I will respond in Spanish. Now, I’m getting a taste of how Latinos in the U.S., perhaps, were feeling when I would speak to them in Spanish. As I kept answering in Spanish, he finally declared his frustration and demanded that I let him practice his English. Again, my mind went back to all the Latinos in the U.S. with whom I tried to practice Spanish. I don’t know if I would have demanded that they'd let me practice my Spanish for that is not my personality, but asking their permission and explaining why would have been a much better approach.