May 2, 2010

Spanish language- Taboos and Complexes

I remember when back in the 80ies I was fascinated by foreign languages so I decided to learn a few. Spanish was my first choice as it was spoken all around me. So, I bought a book titled “Spanish in 22 easy lessons” or something like that.

Spanish to me was the language of Cervantes , Garcia Lorca and Julio Iglesias. It is the language of 300,000,000 plus people around the world.

The introduction in the book promised something of this sort: “An American who speaks Spanish will have an exciting future, and will be able to choose from many lucrative jobs”.

I took many classes and then tried to practice my Spanish on the streets of New York. The problem was this, though: I would begin speaking Spanish, and the people would answer in English. With a sarcastic smile and a sulk. Again, I would speak Spanish, and the people would again answer in English. Once I decided to go to a Spanish language movie theater, but as I was buying a ticket at the booth, the cashier looked at me strangely and warned me: “This movie is in Spanish!” (probably meaning: “What are you doing here?”). I said,” That is why I am here”. Once inside of the movie theater, I tried to buy some popcorn, and ordered in Spanish again, and the lady at the counter avoided all eye contact with me and kept sulking as she was filling the tall popcorn cup. I felt like I was intruding. The message seemed to be: “This is our territory. Why are you here?”

It was not until I went to Puerto Rico to study where most people began speaking Spanish to me, expected me to learn it and become fluent in it. However, the New York experience taught me something valuable: some people in the US feel offended if you try to speak “their” language as they see it as an affront to their culture and an infringement on something that is sacred to them. It was a bit of a shock for me.

However, after some two years of extensive study and having read a great deal of books in Spanish, I was becoming a virtually native Spanish speaker. It was a pity, though that I had to be in Puerto Rico to become fluent in it while there were so many Spanish speakers in the continental US. Too bad they were not too friendly.

But even in Puerto Rico I had some strange encounters. Once I was standing in line at a local supermarket when a middle aged man began talking to me. He was speaking to me in English and then, he pointed to a small TV magazine near the cash register. “You can’t read this!” he said proudly in English. Never mind that I was finishing my courses in Educational Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico with Spanish being the medium of instruction. To him, I was just another Gringo who could not even read a small TV guide in Spanish. Again, I did not look Latino, so how could I read in Spanish?

My next language was French, but since I was not in the financial shape to go to France, I went to Quebec to study it. In the French part of Canada I was in for a big surprise- when people learned that I could speak Spanish, they would tell me that I was lucky and look upon me like I was a member of the educated classes. French Canadians think of the Spanish language as a status symbol, and many try to learn it to improve their social standing. It was there where I would have college graduates sit with me and talk to me in Spanish to show off how ‘refined’ they were.

Not only that. While watching Quebecois soap operas, I became aware of the fact that whenever there was a “romantic foreigner” in them (soap operas around the world love to have one), it would invariably be a handsome Spaniard who was speaking French with a Spanish accent. The Quebec ladies would sit in front of the screen saying: “Aaah” and “Oooh” while telling me how good-looking and sophisticated that Spaniard was.

However, back in the US, the status of Spanish was not quite as glamorous. When I told people about how romantic the French speakers up north thought the Spanish language was, the answer I received was: “There is nothing romantic about standing in welfare lines”.

In other words, in many parts of the US, the Spanish language is associated not with Cervantes or Garcia Lorca, not with the great European country- Spain, but with poverty, welfare, and illegal “non-white” immigration. Outside of Antonio Banderas, virtually no Spanish speaking person would be seen as “romantic” in America.

While I was trying to learn Spanish, many Spanish speakers in the US were either trying to learn English or only speak Spanish discreetly to other people who looked like them- meaning, like Latin American “mestizo” types. On the East Coast, when people said, “He is Spanish”; they would often add the words: ”He looks dark”. And it was seen by quite a few people as a bit of a taboo to learn Spanish as one would be associated with the poor classes of “dark” Hispanic workers.

When I finally graduated from college, I did manage to get bilingual jobs, but they were not as glamorous as the book promised. Mostly, they were social service jobs or receptionist jobs and I was only making some $1600 a month. Within the working environment, people did speak Spanish to me, finally. However, I was now on the West Coast, and most people I was working with were recent immigrants from Mexico who still had not acquired the “wounded pride” syndrome that the Spanish speakers on the East Coast so often develop.

However, in the eyes of the general population, Spanish was the language of ‘brown” (often illegal) people, while English was the language of white and black people. Socially, there continued to be a cautious and often mocking reaction when I tried to speak Spanish to many US-born Hispanics. And again, they would answer to me in English as if meaning to say: “Do not infringe! This is ‘our’ language!”

There are very few Spaniards living in the US, so the association of Spanish (and illegal status) with the “brown” ethnicity is very strong. One Spanish lady (who was from Spain and was in the country illegally) has told me an interesting story:

She was riding on a train in California when the Immigration agents stormed her car looking for illegals. She was sitting next to three Mexicans. The Mexicans were approached by the “Migra” operatives, arrested and pulled off the train. The INS people, however, gave the lady a friendly look, and did not even check her documents. They did not try to check whether she spoke English or Spanish or had an accent. She was an “American” in their eyes even though she was also another illegal Spanish speaker. Why? Well, she looked European, just like most Spaniards do. How could she be an illegal Hispanic immigrant?

No wonder that members of the “mestizo” ethnicities in the US as well as non-Spanish US persons would see a person like myself as another non-Spanish speaker, and consider the fact that I speak Spanish as something strange and even an affront to their “national dignity”. Spanish is the language of Latinos, not people like me.

On a recent trip to Argentina and Uruguay I saw something very refreshing: These were two immigrant countries where a similar to the US melting pot was brewing. Every possible race and nationality could be found in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I saw Poles, Ghanaians, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Japanese, and of course, Spaniards. There was no question about what was uniting all these diverse races and ethnicities into the Argentinean or Uruguayan nationality: it was the Spanish language. Everybody talked to me in Spanish (of course!) and everybody talked Spanish to each other. There was no how-dare-you!-you-are-not-a- Latino type attitude. I saw Spanish-speaking Scandinavians, Spanish-speaking people with names like Norman Tracey and even Spanish-speaking Rastafarians. How about Spanish speaking Hassidic Jews? That was a sight to behold. I was finally able to be my Spanish-speaking self without having to cringe in the expectation of another sulky look with pouted lips and an answer back in English.

The Spanish language in the US definitely has a strange status and even a stigma attached to it. It is usually not seen as a language that will give one a truly good future and a lot of money. It is also not associated with Spain which is its true motherland or the Spaniards of whom there are very few in the US, but is instead seen as a tongue of poor non-white immigrant classes from the Third World.

Many Hispanic groups in the US adopt the Spanish language as a symbol of their “national”/ethnic identity” in opposition to what they see as an imperialistic oppression of their culture by “white” people. Never mind that Spaniards are also “white people” – there are not enough of them in the US to make a valid point that they are the ones to whom this language truly belongs, so the cultural conflict involves two groups- white “John Smiths” ( the Anglos), and “brown” “mestizo” Jose Rodriguezes ( the Latinos). If someone is “white”, he is presumed to be an Anglo and often “denied” the right to speak Spanish by the Latino nationalistic types who quite often start smirking and looking down their noses at him/her whenever he/she speaks Spanish.

During recent demonstrations in California, there were groups that were asserting their right to be in the US by referring back to the fact that their Aztec ancestors had been there before the arrival of the Gringos but also, using the Spanish language as a source of pride in that heritage. However, Spanish is a European colonial tongue, just like English is. If the emphasis was on the Indian heritage, maybe they should have revived the Aztec language and use that as something to unite them. However, it is Spanish again that is being used as a unifying force for the Mestizo population in the US.

Facing all these problems, there are quite a few people who simply like the Spanish language, want to learn it and speak it. However, there are so many complexes attached to it that they sometimes make speaking it a very difficult undertaking.

It is a pity. Therefore, if I really want to speak Spanish and be in a friendly, Spanish speaking environment, I have to do so outside of the US. I could do it in the US, but I really do not feel like seeing another suspicious flash of the eyes, a puffed up chest, or a chin raised in defiance followed by a curt answer in English. All I am trying to do is speak the language of Cervantes, for Heaven’s sake! Why don’t you guys give me a break?



Anonymous said...

Well i'm a mexican and i wouldn't be offended when you speak to me in english because some of my "white" classmate are taking spanish class with the native speakers like me :)

Anonymous said...

Hi!! Im a spanish girl studying n UK, I have find your blog doing a research for an essay, and I think that is really interesting the things that you wrote, I have suffer more less the same avoiding of english people to speak with me, maybe just because I cannot speak as wel as them. It's a pity that people do not try to learn more about other cultures, helping them to learn their languages. Muy buen artículo!

Anonymous said...

I experienced just this when taking Spanish in high school 30 years ago [yikes! am I really *that* old? :( ]

The fact is&was, the native speakers [who, btw, don't speak Spanish just like Americans (used as short-hand for citizens of the USA, not the geographically broader & more correct definition that you point out in another post)don't speak English; they speak a derivative regional dialect] don't WANT you to learn their language, as they want to feel free to talk about you in your presence.

I really enjoyed practicing my [very rusty & imperfect] Spanish years later when I visited Spain, where the Spaniards were extremely welcoming to anyone essaying to speak their lovely language [& quite unlike the Parisians, who mostly wouldn't give you the time of day unless your French was better than rudimentary.]

Anonymous said...

I am Puerto Rican born and raised in Chicago and I would smile and say "Great job" if you spoke spanish to me not everyone reacts the same please remember that, don't judge us ally equally.

Anonymous said...

I am Puerto Rican born and raised in Chicago and I would smile and say "Great job" if you spoke spanish to me not everyone reacts the same please remember that, don't judge us all equally.

Oops, type-o there ,sorry.
I would love to see more non-hispanics speak our language, the more the better we can all communicate together.
I am trying to learn the Korean language and i hope no one gets upset at me for that!