Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Spanish-Speakers and Smarty-Pants


I've been told many times by friends and relatives that I can practice my Spanish in Oakland's Spanish-speaking Fruitvale District or in San Francisco's Mission District. Not true! Although I've made it my business to shop and dine in these areas, I often run into bilingual smarty-pants who want to answer me in English, such as in the Mexican restaurant that I frequent where the cashier, who sounds American born but speaks very good Spanish. She appears more comfortable speaking to me in English, and Spanish to those who fit the stereotypical Latino profile. I say stereotypical because real Latinos come in many colors, including Black, and not just Brown. I think she got the message, when I simply addressed her co-workers in Spanish when placing my order instead of talking to her.

However, I found myself being as smart alecky as this cashier when I'm traveling to Spanish-speaking countries because my primary motive for being in those countries in the first place is to be totally immersed in the Spanish language. I'll never forget my first day in Havana, Cuba when I was on a bicycle tour of the city with a group of Americans. A Black Cuban rode up beside me and struck up a conversation in English. I felt so indignant that I made it my business to be the all-too-familiar smart-ass by consistently responding in Spanish. Finally, out of frustration, he asked me to stop responding in Spanish because he is trying to practice his English. Feeling compassion from being in similar situations myself, I complied with his request. Fortunately, I run into very few people whose English is better than my Spanish during my Latin-American travels. 

Here in the US, many Latinos (and African-Americans) think it is odd to hear a Black person speak Spanish. Little do they know that in the Western world, there are more Black Spanish-speakers than English-speakers. I've observed African-Americans and US Latinos reacting humorously when they hear me speak Spanish. A Black co-worker of mine accused me of wanting to be Mexican. On the other hand, there was an incident in Ecuador where I was on an intercity bus with a lot of Black Ecuadorian passengers with whom I struck up a conversation. A Mestizo woman overheard me telling them that I grew up in New York City, and asked me a question in English. When I responded in English just to entertain the Black Ecuadorians, they roared with laughter like they never heard a Black person speak English before. The need for cultural enlightenment goes both ways!