I say thanks and try to shrug it off, but I worry that letting them think that gives a mistaken impression.
I mean, yes. I can speak Spanish.
My parents taught me Spanish when I was growing up in California because it was the only language they had to give.
Like a lot of children of immigrants, I grew up in a Mexican immigrant bubble – my tias and tios spoke only Spanish. My baby primos spoke Spanish with me when we watched Plaza Sesamo and ate conchitas.
But then I started school and learned English and my Spanish just kind of…froze at that four-year-old stage.
I really don’t know how to conjugate verbs all that well (Yo tengo, yo tendre, yo tenia, yo tendria??? What??).
Please don’t get me started on accents. I don’t know how those fucking things work or where they go. My vocabulary is pretty much stuck at an elementary school level as well.
If I’m forced to describe a food in Spanish, my default is: “Es muy rico! Sabroso!” whereas in English, I can use my fancy-shmancy college education to say things like, “What a transcendently decadent taste; I am truly savoring this dish.”
I feel guilty when people praise me for being bilingual. In my mother tongue, I will always be a child.
I can talk to my mom on the phone but when confronted with relatives from Mexico, I stutter constantly. Whenever I start a story in Spanish, I feel this gigantic rush of anxiety like holy shit, how am I going to finish this story?
Inevitably, some English words creep into my Spanish, giving me away as not a “true” Mexican to my disappointed abuelos.
Which is why I feel so conflicted about being called bilingual. The word “bilingual” literally means that you can speak two languages. For me, it feels more like I can speak half of each language.
The Spanish also creeps up when I least expect it. I vividly recall being in the fifth grade, giving some kind of awful history presentation on the importance of corn crops. Only I couldn’t remember the word “corn”. The word was utterly gone from my brain and its place was the nice Spanish word “maiz” which would have been utterly inappropriate. I just stared silently at the class in a complete panic for a couple of minutes until the English word came back.
Spanish comes to me first when I am thinking about simple things like fruit or curtains or other household items. English seeps into my Spanish when I’m thinking about nuances like feeling gloomy or stressed out.
What emerges is jumbled Spanglish.
I know people praise Spanglish as multi-cultural phenomenon but for me, it’s always felt a little like failure. It’s kind of like admitting I can’t really speak either language.
The next time I say adios to my mom on the phone and someone congratulates me on speaking Spanish, I’m going to be honest and say, “I can barely speak anything??!”