Friday, May 13, 2011

What Do Spanish-Speakers Look Like?

Nearly 1,400 readers visited this site, and no one has yet been able to give an intelligent answer to my question—what do Spanish speakers look like? Can you? Don't let me grow old waiting!

Former Miss Ecuador - Mónica Chalá

One morning, I stopped in a Walgreens store in San Francisco to buy a Latin-American phone card. The woman at the checkout counter, without bothering to ask if I speak Spanish, suggested that I buy a calling card for English speakers. This is far from the first time someone ASS-umed that I did not speak Spanish. Annoyed, I told her (in Spanish) that I have friends in Latin-America who speak Spanish only and I need this particular card! She acknowledged what I said by mumbling something about San Francisco being a multicultural city. Yeah, whatever!

I pointed this experience out to some friends, and humbly asked for some enlightenment; how do you look at someone and determine what language they can or cannot speak? A former college classmate answered,“ just ignore them Bill. She was just plain stereotyping. I'm sure when you responded in Spanish she felt silly.” 

Another friend, who unlike I, happens to be a black native Spanish-speaker (half Cuban and half Dominican) says she has pity on people like that; she slams them with her Spanish, and the near look of cardiac arrest gives her great satisfaction.

From my growing up near Spanish Harlem in New York City, and working in Latino communities in Oakland and San Francisco, I know plenty of people, white, brown, and black who are of Latin-American ancestry who know little or no Spanish. Yet, I've met people of Chinese, Lebanese, and Jewish ancestries who are “native Spanish-speakers.” The same paradox goes for other languages. 

When are people going to wake up and understand that you cannot simply look at people and discern their first, second, or third language?