Saturday, January 31, 2009


Here are a couple of things about me. For one thing, I’m quite shy. I’ve become a little more extroverted as I’ve grown older, but unlike my mother, who is privy to the life stories of strangers within the first five minutes of meeting them, I don’t always strike up conversations with the people I encounter as I go about my day. Secondly, my looks are pretty nondescript, and it’s not obvious to people at first glance that I speak Spanish.

I live in an area with a large Latino population and have everyday encounters with other Latinos all the time, yet often, I used to speak to people in English during many of these routine transactions. Sometimes, if I was just getting lunch, it was so that I could rush back to work and eat. Sometimes I just wasn’t in the mood for the conversation that would ensue if I spoke Spanish. Often it was because I would remember my father, who after more than three decades in Costa Rica spoke Spanish pretty much perfectly, albeit with a thick American accent. When people heard his accent they often immediately switched to English, and he was always indignant when that happened because he was doing his best to speak Spanish and wanted people to respect that.

Anyway, whatever my reasons were—shyness, wanting to respect someone who is learning English, being in a hurry—having children has changed that for me. Because our house rule is, Mama speaks Spanish and only Spanish. Not just at home, but everywhere. And that means that when I’m in line at the checkout counter with my boys, I’m busted and can’t pass for just your average gringa, because my comments to them (which range from “Don’t even think about touching those candy bars!” to “You can have a cookie when we get home” to “Did you thank the nice lady for the balloon?”) are all in Spanish. And if the cashier happens to be Latina, she will smile, or laugh out loud, or praise them for speaking such nice Spanish. And I love it, I love the social interaction, how having my children with me makes me feel not quite as shy.

More importantly, it’s occurred to me recently that I’m happy that my boys have a model. That Spanish is not just a strange language I’m making them learn, a language different from what their teachers and classmates speak. That hearing me speak it with the people we encounter when we're out and about or hearing my side of phone conversations in Spanish will seem completely commonplace. And though I expect some rebellion in the not-too-distant-future, I hope they come out on the other side of things the way I did—hablando español.

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