Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Speaking Spanish - Speaking English

Hablando Español - Speaking Spanish  - Hablando Ingles - Speaking English

A student of mine told me that while working at Walgreens in Houston, she encounters all sorts of issues about what language she speaks.  This is a young woman who immigrated from Mexico, is a successful college student and fluently bi-lingual in English and Spanish.

She says that when a customer arrives, she generally greets them in Spanish (since it is her first language).  If that person is not an immigrant (but Latino) they often become angry with her and demand she speak English.  

She has tried speaking English to customers and often they become angry because she is not speaking Spanish.

What is the answer?


Last week while my brother was in the hospital, a chaplain told my mother that he thought she spoke really good English.  I told the man that my Mom is a 7th generation Texan.  Even though her border Spanish is perfect (Spanish is her first language), she ought to speak good English - she is 85 years old and has lived in Texas all her life, graduated from a Texas high school...

It bothered me that he said that, but then, why should it be offensive?  Was it because the man was implying that my mother was an immigrant....  and at another level, he was being patronizing....  slightly insulting.  He was also showing us that he believed all Latinos are the same.

Why would be insultive to tell someone they speak good English?  Why is it patronizing to say imply you believe someone is an immigrant?

Because when a very very American person tells another they speak good English they are probably really saying "You aren't so bad for being a Mexican (or Hispanic).  

Funny, when I am in Mexico or another Spanish speaking country and people tell me that my Spanish is good, I am not insulted.... so what's the difference?  Maybe its because I am truly learning Spanish.  It is my second language.  I was not fluent until my 40s.  It has taken a lot to learn it and be able to read everything I encounter in Spanish.  I can certainly say its one of the best things I ever did.  A whole world of reading is now available to me.  Professionally it has also made my research so much more thorough... now that I am writing about Guadalupe and the Jews, I can read what the academics in Mexico and Spain say about the Jews and the Conversos, and the Inquisition....


more on this later

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well I think it's offensive and patronizing for someone to automatically speak Spanish to another without knowing their nationality or ethnicity, it's racial profiling. I personally wouldn't be angry but can see why one could be. She should always speak English first (unless she knows them) and if the person doesn't seem to understand then she can ask "Habla Español?" and only if they answer in the affirmative switch to Spanish.
This is how I treated customers when I worked at a clothing store and no one ever seemed to mind. (Even if it was a group of two or more speaking in Spanish I would always greet in English first). Some people who have immigrated are learning English and want to practice and even if their English is broken they prefer to speak English. And other Latinos as ethnic as they might look, like your mother, have been here for decades and might not even speak Spanish.

Also, it's offensive that the chaplain thought your mother was an immigrant because in this country immigrants are second class citizens and are not given the same respect as an American and of course you don't want those thoughts to be attached with your mother. He was also indirectly stating his prejudices, he seemed to be saying anyone of Latino decent can't be a 7th generation American. Almost denying your family's past and those of other Latino Texans. It was a simple statement riddled with prejudices and even racism, although he seemed to be trying to give her a compliment.

And of course when you go to a Spanish speaking country and someone comments on your Spanish you're pleased because you've worked to learn it and I'm sure natives of those countries can tell you are not one.