My lifelong confusion surrounding language and culture often surfaces without warning. In moments like these, I confront one of the most private shames I carried into adulthood: despite having a bilingual parent, I never fully learned to speak or read in Spanish.
I am the daughter of a former dual citizen, a father born in Spain who made a permanent transition to life in the U.S. in his teen years and who also speaks Spanish and English with equal fluency. Yet I seldom speak Spanish and have little experience in reading works which do not offer English translations. When I do venture into a simple sentence here, a colloquialism there, I struggle for the vocabulary, often fishing helplessly at one of my two brothers (who do speak Spanish) for the correct verb.
There are questions about my thwarted bilingual and bicultural identities that are never quite squared away in my mind. My father believes that speaking two languages has been an extremely practical, positive skill. Yet he chose to teach his children little more than the Spanish alphabet and how to count to ten. Many times, I wondered if this approach had been a product of my parents’ separation when I was six years old, their divorce at age ten, and a lifetime of long-distance, sporadic contact between us.
Or had he assimilated so entirely into his American citizenship that teaching us Spanish seemed useless? These days, Dad says that he really only talks in Spanish when he calls my grandmother, Abuelita. Once in a while, he might be asked by his bosses to translate an email from customer services. I note that the thoughts Dad and I exchange in brief weekly or biweekly phone calls are always in English. We are, for better or worse, a bilingual father and a (mostly) monolingual daughter.
My formative experiences with Spanish culture reveal the disconnect stemming from my father’s simultaneous presence and absence. My extended family kept little, if any, contact with Dad after he separated from both his family’s religion and, soon after, my mother.
After my mother resumed working full-time, Abuelita took over our childcare during her working hours. A notoriously bad driver, my brothers and cousins often joked that my grandmother had found her driver’s license in a cereal box and never cared to visit the DMV after. Still, my brothers and I have mostly happy memories of riding around in her Volkswagen Fox: she joked with us, made faces in the rearview mirror, played Spanish music. We sang Gipsy Kings songs in the backseat and begged her to rewind the cassette tape, just one more time, for “Bamboleo.”
On weekends, my extended family – aunts and great-aunts, uncles and great-uncles, Abuelita, our first and second cousins – proudly upheld their tradition of late-evening gatherings over elaborate dinners. We feasted on paellas, tortilla española, or even a boiled pot of fideos. No matter the dinner recipe, garlic and olive oil were sure to be staples of whatever happened to be cooking en la cocina.
The older relatives chatted amongst themselves in rapid, high-pitched tones. In these times together, I came to understand that English was for the little ones, like me, and Spanish was for the adult conversations. If my aunt wanted to chide me for slouching, she grabbed my shoulders and lectured me in English (“Stand up straight, Alley-sown!”). If she wanted to ask my father how work had been going or whether my mother was feeling well that night, they talked in Spanish.
Our times together dwindled over the years. As a teenager, when I drifted, like my father, from the evangelist Christian sect in which I was raised, my extended family noticeably began to limit the contact they keep with me. Their eventual abandonment of regular familial ties carries a sting. My connection to Spanish culture was left to be a solo exploration: I traveled to Barcelona and Madrid with high school classmates, but I made no effort to contact nearby family in the area. If I eat Spanish food today, it’s more likely that I’m at a tapas bar than a cousin’s dinner table.
I rebelled against the idea of taking Spanish classes. I wanted to study French, but my older brother jeered at me, insisting that Spanish was better known and certain to be more relevant in my day-to-day life. My mother agreed with this viewpoint and so I enrolled in Spanish I, then Spanish II Honors. But I never studied, failed more pop quizzes than passed, and was pleased that I squeaked by with a B-, due mostly to my oral presentations, which were always memorized and delivered in a mostly flawless accent. In this respect, the background Spanish chatter in my childhood provided me some benefit.
Some words, though, will always translate from Spanish to English in my mind. Poor Abuelita, for example, was left to give me the facts-of-life-talk after I asked her what the word “masturbation” meant. Rather than answer the question, she explained how sex between a man and a woman works, using words like chumino (vagina) and peto (penis) to describe the actions. When she did say “vagina,” she pronounced the word as “fa-china.” Until I was corrected by my friends, I continued to pronounce “vagina” with her accent until I was at least ten or eleven years old. Needless to say, this particular story provides no small amount of amusement for boyfriends and lovers.
Other words bear a similar history. Chupete was my pacifier. When talking to Bis Abuelo or Bis Abuela, who spoke only Spanish, my brothers and I usually kept the conversation simple: Hola, Bis Abuelo/a. ¿Cómo estás? Te quiero mucho.
My father is surprisingly candid when discussing the complications behind his own bilingual life. Like me, he was raised by a father who spoke both English and Spanish with equal fluency. My grandmother, native to Spain, addressed her children in Spanish, while my grandfather, an American engineer, rarely, if ever, spoke to his children in English while they were at home. Dad attended a private English school in Madrid for his primary school years, but claims that he didn’t really learn to speak a second language with any confidence until later in adolescence, following his parents’ divorce and a permanent move to the U.S. at fifteen.
Despite improving English skills, he remained self-conscious whenever detectable traces of his accent popped up in conversation with other Americans. “They could never identify what kind of accent it was, that was the funny part about it,” he says. “Everyone would always say, ‘You have such a cute accent.’ It demoralized me because it made me think I didn’t have a good grasp on the language. That was not the case – people understood perfectly what I was saying. They just liked the way I talked.”
I ask him if he deliberately kept his Spanish-speaking with us, his first four children, to a minimum. When my brothers and I were born, he says, he felt “there was time to teach you later on. You got older, but unfortunately, your mom and I split up. I was definitely not there to provide the language,” Dad says. He tells a story about a cousin who came to the U.S. at age three, having only known Spanish and being thrust into an environment of English speakers. Eventually, his cousin stopped talking altogether. The family was worried. When his cousin, at last, resumed speech, his words were English; the Spanish vocabulary had been discarded.
“I didn’t want to confuse you,” says Dad. For the first time, I have another reference point for bilingual confusion. I start to understand my father’s reasoning. For a brief moment, I even sympathize.
My family has a unique web of language skill and communication. Two of my brothers studied Spanish in school and speak the language with high proficiency. Another brother studied Japanese and travelled for a month in Japan. Another sister and brother speak conversational Spanish from a brief stint spent living in Honduras. My stepmother recently gave birth to twins; her and my father talk to the babies in English and Spanish. Dad points to his eyes and calls them ojos; his fingers are dedos, his hands are manos. I can only hope that the mistake my Dad made in not teaching the older children two languages are rectified in my younger siblings’ lives.
Dad points out that he never wanted to force me to speak Spanish. “I never spoke in Spanish with you, but you see, I never pressured you, either… I thought it was your choice and I could respect that,” he says. Perhaps he was more comfortable with the idea of a daughter who could at least speak to him, with fluency, in a language we both could understand, rather than risk raising a silent girl.
When I’m asked by friends and family if I can understand what’s being said in Spanish, more often than not, I duck my head low and shyly explain that no, I can’t follow the other person’s train of thought. At twenty-three, my attempts at retaining the family’s Spanish culture are a concerted but sporadic effort: I try my hand at recreating the foods from my childhood (when there’s time to cook), listen to Mocedades and Shakira tracks on my iPod, my head filled with lucid daydreams of plans for a second trip to Barcelona. Still, it’s hard to imagine a time in which Dad and I will effortlessly converse in Spanish. As I struggle to reconcile the limitations of my Spanish lexicon, my sense of Spanish culture cannot be erased; it is at once intimate and familiar, known to me on intuitive levels.