Sunday, November 15, 2009

Looks Can Be Deceiving

When I go into a Latin restaurant or grocery store, I always hope I will be addressed in Spanish, as if everyone could read my bilingual mind but of course why should that happen when I look so "gringa".  In the past I have initiated transactions in Spanish in an attempt to determine the language to be used but my appearance can cause interference and often prompts switching to English on the part of my interlocutor.  Starting in Spanish seemed preferable in that I could have a better chance at controling the language and discouraging the use of English.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  I know that these types of interactions are complex.  What language is used depends on many factors.  I often assume the other person is bilingual because of the demographics of my town but the reverse in never true.  On the contrary, because of the way I look, the burden of proof that I can hold my own in Spanish is on me.  My current strategy is to not force the issue and respond in the same language that I am addressed in.  If it is Spanish, good for me.  If it is in English, I've learned to let it go because most of the time the quality of the "practice" is not worth it, although that's not the point.

I've had many bilingual encounters over the years where language choice was affected by how I and other Spanish-speakers perceived my identity.  Below are some stories about similiar situations I found myself in a few months ago.
My husband asked me to pick up some prepared food for us to share from a local Latin grocery store I go to from time to time.  When I got there I called him on my cell to let him know what was available that day.  I may have spoken to him in Spanish (he's Colombian), but I know I ordered in Spanish.  At the end of the counter, just a few steps from me, was another customer, a woman, observing our interaction.  I moved closer to where she was to pay at the register and she said in unaccented American English:  "I never would have thought you spoke Spanish!"  For once, I took it in stride and told her that I get that comment a lot. We chatted briefly.  Are you Puerto Rican? Yes, from New York, she said, but English is my first language.  Sensing her openness, I told her I was born here in the U.S. too but that I was half-Cuban, partly in an effort to signal membership as a potential heritage speaker.  Of course, it's also a bit of a joke, because I was born in Miami.  She didn't question my comment; she apparently believed it.  My intention was to see if that was possible from her point of view given my accent, fluency and appearance but at the same time to recast those skills as belonging to someone whose family spoke Spanish rather than having learned the language detached from that experience.  In my case I identify more with the former than the latter because of how I acquired it and so, sometimes in trying to express my unique and complex relationship with the language, I find it easier to try to position myself in a conversation as a legitimate speaker.  That's what I chose to do in the exchange described below.

I had already ordered food from the Colombian restaurant where I have a very cordial relationship with the owners and their family.  When I arrived another customer was at the counter to pick up her order.  As she reached for the bag in front of her, the owner's mom who worked there told her in Spanish, that's for Anita (me) and went on to explain that there had been a mix-up and her order wasn't ready yet.  The lady turned to me and translated what was just said in English, probably to be polite.  I responded in Spanish saying that I had understood everything.  The mom quickly added, as she walked to the back of the restaurant, that I was a teacher and spoke the language very well,  implying that was the reason I knew Spanish.  I could see she was constructing an identity for me based on this information, and her previous experiences with others who seem like me:  gringa-studies-goes-abroad-learns-to-speak-becomes-teacher. A disinterested 'ohhh' was the reaction.  Since that categorization does not wholly represent who I am, I decided to offer an alternate identity and represent myself as a heritage speaker.  I told her I was half-Cuban. Again, not to try to be what I'm not but to attempt to explain my background in just a few words and in a way that could make the most sense.  I still got the same reaction; I don't think she cared about any of this.  Although she didn't question my comment I wish she had because then I would know to what extent it was credible.  I had a  temporary satisfaction of finding a sort of niche for myself, nonetheless, I am left with the uneasy feeling of knowing that I continue struggling to come to terms with my identity whether it is of my own making, or one given to me by others.


  1. Very interesting blog entry! I always love seeing what you have to say about being bilingual.

    I guess I fit the mold of gringa-studies-goes-abroad-learns-to-speak-becomes-teacher more so than heritage speaker, but it is very interesting former experiences, appearances, and the setting in which bilingual individuals experience one another can really shape which language is chosen for the interaction.

    It would be an interesting study to do!

  2. Excellent blog Anna! I love these stories. Yes, I'm sure we all know that you said you were Cuban in order to really get h her attention rather than having her believe that, as you so nicely phrased, you belong in the 'gringa-studies-goes-abroad-learns-to-speak-becomes-teacher' category.

    Anyway, I think your story is very impressive and I look forward to hearing many more in the future.



  3. I am trying to become bilingual. Any tips?

  4. Hi, thanks for your comment. My apologies for not responding sooner but I've been on hiatus.
    My response might depend on your goals more specifically and where you're at now in terms of proficiency but regardless of any classes you take or where you might travel, you need to always be hearing it and interacting with people who speak it. I also recommend if it's in your area to try a Fluency Fast class. Check out their site They teach high frequency vocabulary in a course that it a few days long. I think it's a good way to get started. You'll like that everything you hear is made comprehensible. Please post again to tell us how it's going.
    Best of luck