QPM: ‘Am I Hispanic Enough?’ — Non-Bilingual Latinos Can Feel Self Conscious Lacking Spanish Language Ability
According to the US Census Bureau, Spanish accounts for nearly 62-percent of languages spoken in the US other than English — 12 times greater than the next four languages; more than half of Spanish speakers are US born.
University of Evansville (UE) Medical Spanish student Imelda Salgado is participating in a physical therapy lab.
In this case, she’s acting as translator for Alejandro Malla. Also a UE student, He’s 20, a computer science and math major from the Dominican Republic.
“I still need to introduce myself, remember,” Salgado said. For the sake of this scenario, Malla is a Spanish-speaking 52-year-old patient experiencing pain, and is in need of some physical therapy. “Hola, mi nombre es Imelda,” diga Salgado. “Voy a ser su interprete el dia de hoy, quiero decir que todo lo que vamos a hablar hoy, y lo que voy a estar traduciendo entre usted y el doctor es confidencial y si me ven tomando apuntes, sera destruido despues de la cita…”
Medical Spanish student Anna Schindler is playing the doctor who is talking about modifying a particular exercise for outside the clinic.
“At home you can do this exercise with random objects,” Schindler said to Malla.
“En casa puede hacer este mismo ejercicio con cualquier objecto que usted guste,” Salgado translated.
The challenge is translating these unique and specific instructions into Spanish, which sends Malla laboriously walking across a “floor ladder” in almost mock difficulty.
Salgado asks instructor Diana Rodriquez Quvedo about this concept.
“So how do you say ‘the ladder’ so you just say like escalator but she said ‘flat ladder?’”
“Puede ser aquí en este aparato,” diga Rodriquez Quvedo, “esto es para que puedan sepan el equipo que estamos usamos pero con un paciente no hay que darle nombre a todos los objetos …”
Salgado is fluent in Spanish. She’s the first generation offspring from Mexican parents. While she’s in advanced classes like this, she only started learning to speak Spanish in the 8th grade.
Regarding language — late-blooming second or third generation heritage Spanish speakers like her are fairly common, though these learners can experience insecurity and even maybe even shame at not being able to speak Spanish.
“I grew up in a Spanish household; both my parents only knew Spanish,” Salgado said. “I was always in their doctor appointments, and I could never be the most helpful because I wasn't bilingual.”
This is what we’ll be exploring in this ¿Que Pasa, Midwest? Podcast and story — second generation latinos and heritage speakers reclaiming their language a little later in life.
According to the US Census Bureau, Spanish accounts for nearly 62-percent of languages spoken in the US other than English — 12 times greater than the next four languages.
More than half of Spanish speakers are US born.
“Being Hispanic is something I have absolutely grown to love and I embrace it,” said anti-bullying advocate and motivational speaker and Texan, Lizzie Velasquez.
She’s known for having a unique physical appearance due to a rare condition called Marfanoid lipodystrophy syndrome. She visited Indiana earlier this year and speaks all over the Midwest.
“I think one of the biggest lessons that I have sort of kept to myself, but have now been speaking out about … both sides of my family are fluent in Spanish, but my parents never spoke Spanish, in our home growing up,” she said.
“So myself and my sister and my brother, we don't speak Spanish fluently. And so because of that, I always felt this sort of this, I don't want to say, say ‘shame,’ but I always felt like, ‘Am I really Hispanic’ because I don't speak the language? And it was always something I shied away from. And I never really talked about, because I felt like, ‘oh, you know, am I? Am I really Hispanic?’ Because I don't speak the language.
Velasquez has learned that it’s more common than she thought, and no longer questions her Hispanic authenticity.
“(Not being bilingual) doesn't minimize or make you less than anyone else in the culture,” she said. “So I think that's the biggest lesson I have learned. And I think being able to speak about it now, it's definitely helped me because I was so embarrassed of it for so long. And I don't even really know why because it is such a common thing.”
Back at the physical therapy lab Salgado and Schindler are working with Malla, who again is fluent in Spanish so he’s a great help for students learning to translate.
Salgado is stumbling on an important word. “How do you say ‘knee’ again,” she said.
Salgado echoes Velasquez, in that there’s a little self consciousness that comes with heritage speakers learning the language.
“I grew up in that environment of native speakers, the native accent, and everything,” Salgado said. “One of the reasons why I never really took the time to learn Spanish is because I didn't have the accent. So I felt like I wasn't like almost Latina enough for others as well. So I definitely have that insecurity growing up.”
Instructor Rodriquez Quvedo said because they’re heritage speakers, they approach learning Spanish with a lot of cultural experience, and growing up they still pick up a fair amount of Spanish.
“But often, what happens is that once they get into the classroom of a formal setting of language … then they start to second guess themselves, because they didn't learn the grammar, they didn't learn to read and write properly. But they can get by orally just fine.”
These Medical Spanish students have taken conversational, and compositional Spanish and terminology courses.
Despite her heritage, Salgado has to stretch her Spanish ability into uncomfortable territory. But — she also uses her bilingual abilities to help English as a second language (ESL) students learn English.
She volunteers for the University of Evansville (UE) ChangeLab, a community outreach effort that in this case, helps teach Spanish speakers practical English.
Salgado is working with Yutang Hung in using different forms of ‘to bring’ — traer.
She’s in a small conference room of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Evansville, right after the Sunday Spanish Language mass. She’s with two other bilingual ChangeLab tutors, working with Spanish speakers ranging in age from their early 20s to mid 60s.
This happens to be the last class of the season. She said while she’s teaching others, she’s learning a lot as well, especially about other Latin American cultures.
“(Hung is) from Venezuela, there's some from Mexico, there's some from Cuba,” she said. “So I always learn new Spanish slang, culture. They'll tell me about where they came from, why they came here in the first place, how their economic status was before then. So I always learn something new every Sunday.”
The UE ChangeLab also supports the Spanish Club of Washington Middle School in Evansville — where both language and other cultural lessons are taught. It’s also their last meeting of the year.
Sophia Reyes of Wanatah Indiana is 18 and considers herself proficient in Spanish. Her father is a second generation Puerto Rican.
“My abuelos both came from Puerto Rico,” she said, between helping students with the Spanish lesson. “And they decided not to teach my dad or any of my uncles Spanish because they didn't feel like it was really necessary for them. So my dad spoke a little bit and can understand a little bit.”
In high school and college she grew more interested in her cultural heritage and started learning Spanish. She picked up the accent pretty easily.
She said there was an expectation that she could speak Spanish. But until about five years ago she couldn’t.
“Some of my other professors would speak Spanish to me, just kind of expecting me to know it,” she said, adding that it tended to be pretty simple Spanish.. “But I've also noticed when I go to like Hispanic restaurants that are more authentic and the people working there do speak Spanish fluently, that sometimes they won't speak Spanish to me. And I assume that's because I just don't really look it, and I get super nervous so I don't even introduce myself or start in Spanish.”
Soon, the club and the activity leader Kynzie Combs are waiting outside a local Mexican bakery, La Panderia San Miguel, briefing the middle schoolers before they go in and choose two items as part of an end of program treat.
“So how do you say ‘can I have?’ — I just taught you on the way you remember what I told you?” asked Reyes. “If you want to say ‘I would like’ that's gonna be me gustaria. Okay, good job — ready?”
This activity includes a little cultural immersion as the students are encouraged to chat with the shop workers as they select from trays of empanadas, pedicas and cookies.
After selecting their treats, the gang walks back down Washington Avenue to the school.
“I want to be completely fluent,” Reyes said. “I wanted to like hopefully live in Puerto Rico for a while. My Abuela was actually going back soon. And she said she would take me with her. She said just a couple months in Puerto Rico and I just like that catch on.”
Lizzie Velasquez said she’s been working on her Spanish, but she’s finding it difficult.
“And the funny part is, like when I was growing up, my dad was a bilingual teacher for many, many years,” Velasquez said. “So he was actively in school teaching in Spanish and English, which we think is so funny now. But yeah, I'm definitely learning. I think my sister out of the three of us, is definitely learning a lot more. But I'm trying.”
Medical Spanish Instructor Rodriquez Quvedo can relate to these individual heritage language journeys.
She was born in Colombia and raised in Montreal, and then she returned home with family where she strengthened her Spanish language skills.
“It just opened up a whole new world — reclaiming or just going back and really learning my language, how to write, how to read, how to express myself. It is important personally as that journey is that personal challenge. It's also important for your direct family and maybe if you plan to have children for future family.”
To her, this is very enriching for heritage speakers.
“It helps them also realize the beauty and the pride that they're developing and how important it is for themselves, for their family and then for other people wherever it is that you live, and the people you interact with on a daily basis.”
Said Salgado, “it helped me connect better with my family, my distant family that only knew Spanish and my parents as well and just made me really helped my family in the bilingual and translating and interpreting for others as well. And then obviously coming to UE has really really made me grow as a Spanish speaker as well.”
This podcast and web story was funded by New Media Ventures and produced by Tim Jagielo with translation help from Erick Bararra. Podcast includes music by Passion Hi-Fi.
For the ¿Que Pasa, Midwest? Bilingual Reporting Network, gracias por escuchar.
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