by Daisy Leyva
As a twenty-year old Chicana, “Speak English” is a phrase I am more familiar with than I would like to admit— it has become a common occurrence in my life. At one time it was a phrase I only expected to be uttered in movies of a bygone era of blatant Hollywood racism. To my horror, it is now a casual jab thrown around between people I consider my friends as well as yelled at me by strangers.
I have the ability to speak my mind in both English and Spanish, which I consider a blessing. Whether it be a conversation about food or my mom’s addiction to purses, I can convey it in two languages. Why do others see these innocent conversations in Spanish as an invitation to insult me? If you’re a bilingual American of color, maybe you’ve experienced it too.
Thanks to the multicultural essence of the US, it is perfectly normal to hear a multitude of languages casually spoken in public spaces. Yet some people feel offended—even attacked—when I speak Spanish, and tend to react aggressively. These people are usually monolingual and white, and feel so offended that they cannot refrain from trying to publicly humiliate me for speaking Spanish. Maybe they assume I’m talking shit about them, or maybe they just want to “make America great again”. What I will never understand is why they are so offended by my native tongue, but expect me to be fine with them yelling “Speak English!” while I’m trying to have a conversation.
I was born into a Mexican family as a first generation Chicana, nurtured in Spanish at home. Although I may not speak it perfectly, it is my first language. Through television, school, and the influence of my older siblings, I gradually learned to speak English. For me, being bilingual was just natural; I never gave it a second thought.
Then came along people I will collectively refer to as Mike. Mike’s ignorance is something I didn’t notice until I got older. Mike looked at me strangely when I switched from English into Spanish with ease. Does he feel left out? Incompetent? He and his friends would glance at me, laugh among themselves, and shoot me dirty looks. Initially, I would react with shame and embarrassment.
For me, these insecurities built up and caused an absence of self esteem that would haunt me for a long time. I truly believed no one would ever take me seriously, simply because I speak with an accent. They assume that because English isn't my first language, I must be of lesser intelligence. I was embarrassed of what makes me unique and separates me from the average, painfully monolingual American.
Since things have changed for me and I do not have those fears anymore, I see myself as able to think in ways that a monolingual person can’t. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice how others are treated when they have difficulties communicating in perfect English. Customers are treated poorly because employees can’t or refuse to properly understand them, and fellow students constantly assume I don’t know what I’m talking about because they see my race and hear my accent before they hear what I have to say.
These are not theories, but things I have experienced myself and know to be true. Unfortunately, Mike’s ideals exist everywhere, even in supposed “safe” spaces, like school. People you trust think like Mike; nice, educated people think like Mike. Sometimes, you look up to a Mike.
Around the age of sixteen, I began to embrace my identity. With this, I came to the realization that this hatred was not for my language, but rather my racial and ethnic identity, which Spanish is just an extension of.
This hostility many white Americans hold toward us is not about our actual languages, many of which are European in origin. It is toward the people of color who speak them— and it’s multilayered. In my experience, I have often felt that white people feel threatened by both our growing numbers and to their surprise (and whether they would like to admit it or not) our intelligence.
This is why people like me are made to feel like our languages do not count, like we should be embarrassed to speak them in public, and why we must learn perfect English in order for others to not be inconvenienced by our lively conversations or the sounds of our accents.
My freshman year of college I was assigned a roommate who is white, from a predominately white area. I don't think she had ever encountered a Mexican person until she met me. Every now and then she would make “humorous” comments about my ethnicity, which I wrote off— excusing it as a lack of culture. We got along well, went out often, and bonded over the things we had in common.
One day she walked in on me talking on the phone with my mom. She overheard me speaking Spanish and said, “No talking Spanish in this apartment, I don't like it. It makes me uncomfortable.” I was immediately conflicted; afraid of overreacting and yet wanting to call her out for her bigotry.
I chose to confront her in a very civil and polite tone, and she completely wrote it off as an overreaction. I let it go, but for the remainder of our relationship I couldn’t help but hold onto what she had said.
I truly understood the intent of her words when a few weeks later, she got into an argument with my other roommate who also happened to be Mexican-American. In the peak of the argument, she had shouted, “I’m not sure if you're understanding me, do you want me to say it in Spanish for you?!”
The gravity of all the seemingly well-intentioned jabs she had thrown at us and the multiple times she had expressed disbelief at my intelligence finally hit me.
I then understood she believed that because my mom speaks in broken English, because of my Latinidad, because of my nonwhite traits, I was inferior in all aspects. She did not like my first language, and believed I was lesser because of it. My language was ugly, and that made her better than me.
This was neither the first nor the last negative experience I had because of my ethnicity, but it was undeniably an eye opening one. And it led me to the question: Why are languages spoken by people of color devalued? The answer lies in the white supremacist ideals embedded in our society.
There is no solution for the microaggressions any marginalized community faces, except to actively dismantle these systems of oppression. That being said, we as Americans of color must keep speaking.
My mom’s broken English is not something to be ashamed of— it is just evidence that she speaks another language. Like her, I will speak Spanish no matter how many dirty looks you throw at me.
Daisy Leyva is a student and contributor for Trascender Magazine.