During the 2014 Latinitas Blog-a-thon for Hispanic Heritage Month, Cynthia Amaya and Rebecca Salazar shared their thoughts on how language has influenced their upbringing.
“Do me a favor. Take a second and think about the complexity of language. There are so many languages in this world that I think we sometimes forget that not everyone speaks English. Growing up, I thought English was the one and only language. My grandparents spoke this very strange sounding language to me, which I later learned was called Spanish. English is my first language. I grew up with Spanish speaking parents and grandparents, yet I don’t consider myself a fluent Spanish speaker. I understand mostly everything said in Spanish, but when I’m asked to join in conversation, I freeze up.
I never fully committed to this part of my heritage. Conversations with my family sometimes consisted of my parents speaking to me in Spanish and me replying in English. This sounds absurd, I know. Now that I am older and have experienced many things, I realize that I had a chance to gain such a valuable skill. I deeply regret not taking advantage of this beautiful language as a child, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late for me. Who says your identity has a beginning and an ending? Embracing your culture is such a beautiful thing, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those conversations I had with my parents and grandparents growing up. So I’m here to tell you that it’s never too late to embrace your heritage. Don’t be afraid cause you can only grow from here.”
— Rebecca Salazar
“My first language was Spanish. Neither of my parents spoke English and basically no one in my life spoke English, so I grew up around Spanish and Spanish only. I didn’t start learning English until I was in headstart, a school aimed at children of lower incomes so we won’t be behind when ‘actual’ school starts, and then continued learning when I was enrolled in pre-kinder. By the time I was in kindergarten, I was fluent in both English and Spanish, but I stayed in bilingual classes until third grade, when I took my first monolingual class. Although I was in monolingual classes, I would still have friends with whom I’d only speak in Spanish and, of course, I spoke Spanish with my family. It was just natural for me to be bilingual and switching between both languages. There was nothing weird, offensive, or foreign about that to me.
When I got to high school, I suddenly had teachers who were so offended that I would speak Spanish in my classes. They would get angry and say we were in America and thus, should only speak English. To this day, I still believe that that statement has no foundation or logic. The United States does not have a national language, so I can speak whatever I want. I never knew that speaking Spanish was something that was part of my identity or something that would make me different from my peers. It’s just what my friends, family, and I did. We spoke Spanish and we spoke English and it was fine. Freshman year and on, it was all about the, “GO BACK TO MEXICO” comments coming from peers who had Latino last names. They’re as Mexican as I am and, really, none of us came directly from Mexico. We are all Americans, so how does sending me “back” to Mexico even make sense? I didn’t understand. What’s so threatening about speaking Spanish? Although my teachers never made comments like that, I got threats about behavioral discipline if I kept speaking Spanish. I was perfectly fluent in English and my grades were fine, so why couldn’t I speak Spanish if I chose to do so? WHY IS IT SO THREATENING?!
When I got to Texas A&M, a predominantly white school, Spanish became foreign to me. The first few weeks I was there, I literally (LITERALLY) would never hear Spanish unless I’d call my mom, spoke with my brother who also attended A&M, or spoke to one of my friends from El Paso. It eventually became something that I’d be on the lookout for. If I heard someone speaking Spanish at the store, my ears would prick up and I’d immediately turn around and crane my neck trying to find the source of my beautiful language. I reacted the same way on campus and on the bus. I never even knew Spanish was such a rare language! So many people in El Paso speak Spanish that I just figured it was kind of like that everywhere else. Suddenly I, with my fluency in both languages, was a high commodity. No one was sending me back to Mexico now that they could use my foreign language skills to their advantage.
I truly never realized that speaking Spanish has been and will continue to be a huge part of who I am. I form my sentences differently because Spanish was my first language; I think and learn differently because of it, too. (I still count in Spanish when I’m counting in my head!) Although I’m more comfortable with speaking and writing in English since my Spanish isn’t in use as much, I still love and adore Spanish. It is part of my culture and part of myself. I wouldn’t be me without that language ingrained in my heart.” — Cynthia Amaya