Opinion: I’ll never stop striving for better Spanish

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By Raul Reyes (NBCLatino.com)

I grew up on the edge of East L.A., so surrounded by Spanish that it scarcely registered with me.  Every morning I left for school yelling out “¡Yamevoy!”  On weekends, I helped my father sweep up our patio with la palita; it was years before I found out that it was also called a dustpan.  When I misbehaved, my mother would call me malcriado.  (One time, my aunt explained to me that malcriado meant “badly raised.”  I found this puzzling.  Why would my mother call me malcriado, when she was the one raising me?)

Back then, Spanish was the language of secrets.  It was what my parents and aunts spoke when they were discussing adult matters.  The sound of español in the kitchen or living room was my cue for eavesdropping. I was quite adept at memorizing whole phrases in Spanish, so I could broadcast family gossip to my brothers and cousins.  There was a tender dimension to Spanish, too.  If I hurt myself playing, my mother would put a band-aid on me and murmur Sana, sana, colita de rana.  Although I had no idea what this meant, it was immensely comforting.

So when I say that I grew up in an English-speaking household, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  It is more accurate to say that we were an English-dominant household, because Spanish was an inescapable part of our daily lives.  My family follows the traditional trajectory of language patterns among Latinos.  The Pew Center has found that first-generation Hispanics (like my grandpa) speak mostly Spanish, while the second generation (my parents and aunts) speaks both Spanish and English.  By the third generation (me), English becomes the preferred language.  Now media outlets like NPR wonder if Spanish will decline in the future.

I believe Spanish will thrive among successive generations of Latinos.  Consider that for my generation, Spanish was a way to connect with the past, whether that meant talking with our grandparents or studying classic literature.  Today, speaking Spanish is a bridge to the future.  It is the key to successful business strategies and professional advancement – not to mention the lyrics of Pitbull.

I’ve studied Spanish and consider myself proficient.  I can carry on a conversation, I can give directions, I can order in a restaurant.  Still, when people ask whether I speak the language, my answer depends on the context.  If I am with a group of non–Latinos, the answer is yes.  It is a point of pride for me that I know enough Spanish to “get by.”  Among native speakers, it is a different story.  With them, my speech becomes halting and self-conscious, and I’ll make apologies for not knowing Spanish.  In reality, I am probably like many assimilated Hispanics who know far more than we realize.  No wonder that colleges across the Southwest offer courses in Spanish for “heritage learners,” for students who have a family or community connection to the language.

At times Spanish can seem like a frustrating mystery.  I still don’t know how to roll my r’s properly, and the subjunctive baffles me.  That hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the music of Selena (who was not entirely fluent herself), or Shakira.  And I know that there are many successful Hispanics, from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to Jennifer Lopez to Justice Sonia Sotomayor who admit that their command of the language is imperfect.

I will never stop striving for better Spanish.  I want to honor my heritage and challenge my abilities.  I want to stay in touch with my most authentic self.  And besides, I don’t want anyone thinking that I was malcriado.

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Categories: NGL News

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