Opinion: The Importance of Language, as a Latino

The author, Dallas senior Juan G. Rodriguez, holds a stack of books with his right arm and magazines in his left. Most of the books are written in English, while the magazines are in Spanish. These reading materials center around either Latin America, Mexico or Latines in the United States (Photo illustration by Juan G. Rodriguez).

As of the time of writing this, Latine Heritage Month has come to a close. 

Every year, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the United States takes this one occasion to recognize the contributions and existence of its Hispanic and Latine populations. Doing so, I’d imagine, gives USAmericans a warm feeling in their stomach; the general population can lay claim to allyship because they believe they did their part by sharing squares on Instagram about noteworthy figures throughout Latin America’s history.

However, there’s still work to be done. We owe it to our Latine communities to recognize the reasons they are here in this country and the role the US played in destabilizing their homes. Whatever we choose to do during this month, we can’t let the work we do in service of Latine communities be limited to only this month out of the whole year. 

It’s important that those of us born in the US analyze certain elements of the typical USAmerican experience and recognize just how prevalent they are. For any individual coming into this country, there are a lot of things they must contend with; so much of who they are marks them as an outsider, be it their faith, skin tone or heritage.

None, to me at least, are as much of note as one’s tongue – the language they wash up on shores with.

When I was getting ready to come up here to Michigan for my first year at Albion, my mom was fairly calm, all things considered. If she worried about what sort of shenanigans I’d get up to, she did an absolutely stellar job at keeping those concerns pressed tightly to her chest. 

Well, that, or I may have stopped listening to her worries after the first ten times. I wasn’t too concerned about whether I’d get in trouble or not, simply because I don’t go out looking for it.

What managed to stick with me all this time was the grave look in her eyes as she pressed her final warning into my hands.

“No te olvides de donde vienes, de donde tu familia viene,” she said.

Those words have haunted my waking existence for these last few years. I can’t stand the notion that I could ever forget my heritage or my language. At the time my mom gave me that warning though, she was right to be worried. I hadn’t given her much of a reason to believe that my Latinidad meant anything to me besides what box I’d tick on official documents. If I hadn’t taken Elizabeth Barrios’ “Spanish for Heritage Speakers” class my first semester, I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t be writing any of this.

See, language is very much a part of everyday life. It’s one of the main ways that people communicate with one another – a shocker, I know. 

For my family, that experience has been a difficult one. My parents can’t fill out forms online on their own; it isn’t just tech literacy that they have to contend with. It doesn’t mean anything to know how to use a computer when the words on the screen are in a language you never had the time or resources to learn.

My mom and dad and every other relative that struggles to navigate this country turn to me, my younger sibling, my cousins; anyone who can do the things they can’t. They turn to us and ask us to be ambassadors for them, to advocate for them in a tongue foreign to them.

It’s stressful to fill out healthcare forms at 10 years old. That box at the end of those applications – certifying that all the info you gave was, to the best of your knowledge, true and accurate – quickly becomes a recurring figure in your nightmares.

And yet we still do the work of translating for them, every time. If we don’t, then who will? 

I was privileged to have come of age in an environment where Spanish dominated most of the conversations around the block. If there was something I couldn’t communicate at a given moment, then there would surely be someone, sea mi tío o un vecino, who could do so.

There are people in this country that didn’t get that same experience. No matter where an English-speaker goes, there isn’t the concern that someone in the area doesn’t speak your language. It’s never going to be as pronounced as the worry my dad feels when I’m helping him look for work. We always hesitate when I point out the requirements listed. Sure, he can communicate clearly and efficiently.

Solo en español though. 

We fill the application out, sure, but with the devastating knowledge that he probably won’t get the job.

Rompe el corazón, having to hear him talk about how he hasn’t gotten a call back from any of the jobs we’ve submitted applications for. Me quedo quieto and think how I could be doing more, how I have to be the one that sticks up for him when no one else can.

Es mi deber cómo su sangre y carne, cómo su hijo, me digo a mí mismo. ¿Cómo no voy a sentir un poco de vergüenza por no haberle conseguido a mi papá un trabajo? ¿Por qué estoy estudiando si no lo puedo ayudar con esta maldita cosa?

I’m tired, folks. I can barely get my own ideas across, much less those of my family. It takes so much effort to twist and contort my mother tongue into something that a native English-speaker can understand. English-only speakers won’t ever have to do the gymnastics routine I do in order to maneuver my family and I around this country. They’ll always be welcomed with open arms wherever they go in this country. It’s one less fight they have to put up over the course of their daily lives.

I’m not asking English-speakers to be ashamed of their language. I’m asking them to be more conscious of the ease they have when going about their lives. 

Native English-speakers, you are fortunate enough to be born in a country that primarily speaks the language that your parents, at the very least, speak. You went to school speaking, reading and thinking in English. Wherever you go in the United States, people will have enough of a familiarity with English to serve you, to attend to your needs and make sure that you are taken care of.

No se les olviden quienes están trabajando en las cocinas, en construcción, en los campos y  en todos los otros trabajos que bien apenas pagan lo suficiente para poder mantener a sus propias familias. Es un lujo que uno pase tiempo con su familia, algo inasequible a la gente que bien apenas tienen el vocabulario y la plata para navegar este país.

Al final del día, regresamos a nuestras casas dentro de un país extranjero, donde nuestra lengua hace de nuestras vidas algo más complicado.

“Todo tiene un precio,” es lo que mi mamá diría. Si uno va a vivir dentro de los Estados Unidos, va a ser una vida difícil y complicada. Uno va a experimentar el aislamiento y la distancia de la comunidad con la cual uno comparte su lengua y su sangre.

Y aun así, logramos salir adelante. ¿De qué otra manera nos queda si no?

Con nuestra propia sangre en las manos y el sudor en nuestras caras, continuaremos. Por el bienestar de nuestros amigos y familiares y el pueblo, navegaremos este desafío como cualquier otro. 

Cruzaremos el horizonte y llegaremos a nuestra tierra prometida un día, camaradas. Hemos logrado llegar hasta este momento por nuestra fuerza propia y la voluntad del universo. 

Mi gente, esta vida vale vivir sin importar los desafíos. Reconozco tal cosa cada vez que los tengo cerca.

Sin importar la distancia, siempre voy a encontrar mi camino de vuelta a ustedes.

Son mi estrella del sur; ¿Cómo me podría olvidar de eso?

About Juan G. Rodriguez 45 Articles
Juan G. Rodriguez is a senior sharing his time between Dallas and East Texas. He is majoring in English and minoring in Political Science. As an individual with two pencil leads in his left knee, writing seems to be the only career that Juan is capable of. Contact Juan via jgr13@albion.edu.

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