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Friday, May 29, 2015

Practicing My Spanish in Mexican Restaurants



It's been two or three years since I started frequenting Octavio's Mexican restaurant near my house in Oakland, California. Octavio and I have never spoken English since we've met—Spanish only. I know that his English is fluent because I hear him interacting with other customers. 

Most Latin-American people I meet who are fluent in both English and Spanish appear to have some serious hangups about speaking Spanish to people who are black, white, or others who do not fit the stereotypical appearance of a Spanish speaker. There were times in other Mexican restaurants, I would ask, in Spanish, the permission to order in Spanish because I've seen some Spanish-speaking servers get really bent out of shape because I didn't address them in English. I always leave bigger tips to those who engage me in Spanish.

Now that I think about it, I too have my hangups when I'm in a Spanish-speaking country where I am quick to respond in Spanish to people who speak to me in English. I do this to send a message that I am not one of those gringos who can't speak Spanish. Another reason is that I need the practice, which is the primary reason, among others, that I travel to Spanish-speaking countries. Yet, there have been occasions when Spanish-speakers would ask my permission to converse in English, and I would comply out of empathy and understanding.

However, it's been a while since I traveled through Latin-America, and I'm no longer working at the agency where I was speaking to Spanish-speaking clients on a daily basis, or even occasionally serving as an interpreter. Thus, my Spanish has begun to falter, big time.

There was one point in Octavio's restaurant when I felt stuck in my English to Spanish translation, and tried speaking to him in English; Octavio ignored my English and continued speaking Spanish. That's when I realized that he knows that I am not as fluent in Spanish as I would like, and is only trying to help me out. Kudos to Octavio. He even speaks Spanish to me in front of his African-American customers.

Recently, I enrolled in an advanced class at Centro Latino in Berkeley, California. The classroom is fine, but the best thing next to traveling to a Spanish-speaking country and being totally immersed in the language is to have a support system of native speakers, like Octavio. However, the more in my Spanish-speaking support system, the merrier.