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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Being Sneaky with Spanish Contraband

 
 I got my introduction to the Spanish language browsing 
the Countee Cullin Children's Library in Harlem, NY


When I was in elementary school, my father began to notice an undesirable trait in me and was determined to nip it in the bud. I was very sneaky. My father, a single parent, punished me severely whenever he caught me trying to be slick. He felt that if he let me get away with the little things as a child, I would graduate to bigger things, and eventually wind up in a place like Rikers Island; a jail facility in the middle of New York City's East River.

 The University of Havana, Cuba where I got my first crash-course
 in Spanish. The instructors spoke no English.

Living in Harlem, NY, at that time, made my father, a St. Louis, Missouri transplant, very paranoid and afraid that one day I might get hooked on drugs, be involved in a street gang, or engage in some other type of criminal activity. Therefore, he kept a very close eye on my younger brother and me doing the very best in sheltering us from the street life.

I didn't know it at the time, but my father did let me get away with one thing presumably behind his back. There were items that I used to sneak into the house for self-indulgence—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.

 During my trip to Ecuador, I visited an all-black town in Chota 
Valley where many black soccer stars are produced.

One day, I was browsing the children's shelves of Harlem's famous Countee Cullens 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 preoccupied himself reading the New York Times.

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 France as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. He even taught me a few words in both languages, and that gave me the false impression that he would be so pleased with my learning Spanish.

While in Cartagena, Colombia, I came across the 
South American version of Ebony Magazine

Instead, he burst my bubble insisting that I learn English first. Well, that did not make any sense 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 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 with them.


My second crash-course in Spanish was in Lima, 
Perú. The instructors did not speak English.

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 I meet 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! I began to wonder how in hell does he know? 


 I am following the advice of my late Mexican-American friend, Yolanda 
(R.I.P.). If I am going to speak the language, learn the culture!


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 so much better when I told him that I was practicing on the Puerto Ricans.