When I was younger, even though I knew English, I refused to speak it--Spanish was my comfort language, and having been surrounded by people who spoke it all my young life, it only made sense that everyone would understand me. My aunt and grandmother on my Mom’s side--my American side--would hold up objects and ask me what they were. I thought they didn’t know anything; to me these people were picking up standard objects like napkins and asking a four year old what they were called as if they really didn’t know.
But now it’s all different. English is one hundred and ten percent my comfort language. I’ve become more detached from my Spanish surroundings, having spent seventeen years living away from a Spanish speaking country. When we came to the US, in trying to fit in, I avoided speaking it, answering my dad who always speaks to me in Spanish, in English, and losing my vocabulary and confidence as time went on.
I wasn’t allowed to take Spanish at my school--the decision made sense, but I had never learned the grammar properly. We left before I took Spanish classes in Peru, and in Portugal my language was Portuguese. When my American friends asked me for help on their homework, I was useless. I didn’t know what preterite tense was; I asked them what ‘uds.’ meant and they laughed so hard, it took them full minutes before I understood, or better said, was explained to, what was so funny.
Eventually my lack of confidence in the language was separating me from my Spanish family. I wanted to talk to them but felt like I couldn’t expand on topics more than a certain amount and our conversations were surface level, searching for more, but I wouldn’t allow it to get too deep for fear of not being able to say what I really wanted to. I wanted to speak it perfectly, so my alternative was to not speak it at all or to cut conversations short--I felt judged, though the feeling was coming from me rather than from anyone else. When I got compliments I assumed it was people being nice, with an undertone of ‘keep practicing.’
In high school, I was lucky enough to spend a month in Spain--I stayed with family friends, and went to language classes in the morning. It was the best thing I could have done--it brought back confidence in my Spanish, yes, but it also did so much more. At the time, I was homeschooled. I had left my high school in Virginia and moved to Baltimore, entering my Junior year. I knew no one. I was in a tough place, thinking my friends in Virginia were leaving me behind, I had lost the ability to make new ones, and I had another year left before going off to college, which seemed scarier and scarier as I became lonelier. The trip gave me a reprieve--I met great new people, realized it wasn’t me but my environment, and I felt opened up to a new, clearer reality.
In Spain I could relate more to people; school and work weren’t the priority twenty-four-seven, and people were generally happier it seemed. I made new friends, I met my dad’s buddies and their daughters, I went to Real Madrid games with my uncle and cousins. Yes, I was only there for a month, which is different from permanence, but it’s the style of life I grew up in--the style my family embraces and that I realized I belong in. I understood that I had been feeling out of place in the US; like I had to try to fit in rather than just fitting in already.
When I got back to Baltimore I felt better, there was an understanding and a renewed sense of identity within me. Now in New York I seek out Spanish speaking bars, if someone addresses me in Spanish I gladly speak it back to them, and even if I just hear it in the street, it makes me smile. We have a connection, however minute it is; whether it be a shared term of endearment, the comprehension of a specific joke, or a shared mannerism, it feels real.