When I was younger, even though I knew English, I refused to speak it. Spanish was my comfort language, and having been surrounded by people who spoke it all my young life, it only made sense that everyone would understand me. My aunt and grandmother on my Mom’s side—my American side—would hold up objects and ask me what they were. I thought they didn’t know anything; these people were asking a four year old what napkins were called as if they didn’t already know. But now it’s all different. English is one hundred and ten percent my comfort language. I’ve become more detached from my Spanish surroundings, having spent seventeen years living away from a Spanish speaking country.
When my family came to the US, in trying to fit in, I avoided speaking Spanish. I would answer my dad who always spoke to me in it, in English, and lost my vocabulary and confidence as time went on. I wasn’t allowed to take Spanish at my school.The decision made sense, but I never learned the grammar properly since we had left Peru before I was able to take Spanish classes. When my American friends asked me for help on their homework, I was useless: I didn’t know what the preterite tense was or what ‘uds.’ meant. And when I asked, they laughed so hard that it took them full minutes before I understood, or rather, was told, what was so funny.
Eventually my lack of confidence in the language was separating me from my Spanish family. I wanted to talk to them but felt like I couldn’t expand on topics more than a certain amount. Our conversations were surface level, and I was searching for more. But I wouldn’t allow it to get too deep for fear of not being able to say what I really wanted to. I wanted to speak it perfectly, so my alternative was to not speak it at all or to cut conversations short. I felt judged, though the feeling was coming from me rather than from anyone else. When I got compliments I assumed it was people being polite, with an undertone of ‘keep practicing.’
In high school, I was lucky enough to spend a month in Spain. I stayed with family friends, and went to language classes in the morning. It was the best thing I could have done. It brought back confidence in my Spanish, yes, but it also did so much more. It helped me understand that I had been feeling out of place in the US, like I had to try to fit in rather than just fitting in already. At the time, I was homeschooled. I had left my high school in Virginia and moved to Baltimore, entering my Junior year. I knew no one and I was in a tough place. I thought my friends in Virginia were leaving me behind, and that I had lost the ability to make new ones. On top of that I only had another year left before going off to college, which seemed scarier and scarier as I became lonelier. The trip gave me a reprieve. I met great new people—realized it wasn’t me but my environment—and I felt opened up to a new, clearer reality. In Spain I could relate more to people. School and work weren’t the priority twenty-four-seven, and people seemed generally happier. I made new friends, I met my dad’s buddies and their daughters, and I went to Real Madrid games with my uncle and cousins. Sure, I was only there for a month, which is admittedly short and different to permanence, but it’s the style of life I grew up in, the style my family embraces and that I realized I belong in.
When I got back to Baltimore I felt better, there was a renewed sense of identity within me. Now in New York I seek out Spanish speaking bars, I gladly reply in Spanish when addressed in it, and even hearing it in the streets makes me smile. Speaking the same language brings a feeling of connectedness, however small it is. Whether it be a shared term of endearment, the comprehension of a specific joke, or a shared mannerism, it feels real.
I went to CAISL
In the third grade my classroom got moved to the upper floor of our school where a hallway connected us to the high school. Every morning I stood in that hallway listening for my brother’s voice echoing the morning announcements. My teacher would call me into class, but I dragged my feet until he signed off, clinging to the words he said. I was proud that that was my brother—the voice of the school. I was always a shy, quiet kid, but his voice felt like mine in those moments. It gave me comfort and I felt like I had a place at the school being related to him and my other brother Santi. They were carving a path for me; setting a precedent since it was, and still is, hard for me to claim my own space, to make enough noise and make an impression. They carved a path for me since it was—and still is—difficult for me to claim my own space and make enough noise to leave an impression.
That year the high schoolers put on a haunted house for us younger kids. I knew most of the actors and they targeted me because of my brothers—it’s the only time I actually enjoyed a haunted house. Even in the scary environment, I felt as if I were in on the joke. I felt protected by the presence of my brothers at my school. Not only could I go to them whenever, but I also knew their friends and they knew me. It gave me confidence, and when we moved to the US a year later, and the three of us ended up at different schools, I was on my own for the first time ever.
Isabel is an aspiring ux/ui designer and creative technologist based in NYC.