"When you speak Spanish, people tell you ‘Wow, that’s so good. Congratulations.’ When I speak Spanish, I’m told ‘Speak English.’ The only difference is the color of my skin,” a friend of mine told me last week.
I was sitting in Denny’s with my friend, who came to Texas from Mexico many years ago with his family. We were catching up over a lunch of burgers and fries, talking about our families and, sadly, the recent shooting in El Paso that reflected anti-immigrant sentiments. We also were speaking Spanish.
Spanish is a beautiful language that spans countries and connects cultures. I love speaking it. I still remember the first time I could actually understand the conversations of the people around me on a street in Spain. Through speaking another language, it was like a whole other world had suddenly opened to me. And with 52.6 million people here in the United States who speak Spanish, I think it only makes sense for Americans to learn it.
I’m often encouraged for my efforts to learn Spanish, whether for my career or just as a personal goal. When I practice with people in restaurants, in the street, at social gatherings, I’m often received with warmth and encouragement. People are happy to hear me learning and patiently look past my stumbling errors while I try to tell a story or share a joke.
Sadly, my friend doesn’t have the same experience. No matter that he speaks English perfectly well and has been here for many years. He can navigate a complex conversation with perfect ease. He is bilingual.
Why is it that when I speak Spanish in public, I’m encouraged, but when he speaks Spanish in public, he gets dirty looks and nasty comments?
If it’s something as simple as the difference between the color of our skin, that is a reflection of a deeper problem we somehow continue to run into in the year of our Lord 2019. I’m your standard Caucasian female; people don’t bat an eyelash if I choose to break out some chistes at the dinner table or swap a quick “¿Qué tal?” with the family jogging next to me in the park. My friend deserves to be treated with the same respect I am treated with.
I understand the frustration of people who can’t communicate with non-native English speakers. Just as I learned Spanish when I went to Spain, it should be an expectation to learn English if you live in America. No matter where you are, you need to know the dominant language to navigate daily life.
However, what is completely uncalled for is rude commentary or mocking someone for learning — or worse, telling them to “go back where they came from” just because they want to tell a story or share a joke in their native language. If they can speak English fluently and contribute to society, why be hateful and stick your nose into someone else’s conversation?
While those who want to build a new life for themselves in the States should learn English to navigate their new life, we, in turn, should extend grace and kindness to those trying to learn.