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Raising Bilingual Children: Habla Español?

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-4My son is the color of cream. His skin, like mine, tans golden brown but could easily burn in the desert sun. His cheeks flush winter pink.

Gabriel may look like a dark-haired Caucasian, but his lineage tells another story. On my side, he is one quarter my Panamanian mother, one quarter my White father, and on my husband’s side, one half Mexican, as both Alex’s parents emigrated from northern Mexico to Scottsdale, Arizona when it was little more than a farming town.

I’m proud of my husband’s history. I love hearing the fluty rhythms of his speech on the rare occasion he speaks Spanish. From the time Gabriel was an infant, I encouraged Alex to pass this knowledge on to his son. It’s important to be bilingual. Everyone knows that. And Spanish, even if it weren’t the language of Gabriel’s grandparents, is the natural choice. There’s no reason he shouldn’t speak it.

And then I remember why I don’t speak it.

It is an immigrant’s story: A young woman—beautiful, Hispanic, skin the color of wet earth—marries an airman and bears him a son. This son is born American, on a military base in his mother’s homeland, and he’s learning two languages at four years old when he travels to America. His parents settle in the Deep South; it is the 1970s, and the young woman—now pregnant with a daughter—is full of hope for her new life, in her new country, with her new family.

My mother is the color of wet earth. Roasted espresso beans. Chocolate. She is beautiful, Hispanic. It is the 1970s, the Deep South, and her English is thick and halting. She is crushed like a bug under the weight of her skin.

By the time I’m old enough to form words, the only ones I hear are in English. My mother will abandon her native tongue in the hopes that her children assimilate smoothly. If she teaches us to talk like her, she fears, we’ll adopt her accent. We’ll be followed in stores and ridiculed, assumed ignorant. She will tell us to declare ourselves White. She never talks about her homeland, and we never ask. By the time he starts school, my brother has forgotten all of his Spanish.

My skin is the color of caramel. I’m often mistaken for Caucasian. It is partly for this that I see the depth of hatred. I see it in my job at a nursing home that employs a diverse population. Many times, patients make derogatory comments about their Mexican aides, their Indian doctors, their Black nurses. As if we have a secret understanding: I’m part of their club.

From a patient: “I don’t want that nasty aide touching me. You know, the one that can’t talk English.” She speaks with a lovely Latina accent, like my mother. She speaks two languages, and you speak one.

From a co-worker: “How come nobody in the kitchen knows what the hell I’m saying? Don’t they understand English?” They are trying. Every time their phone rings, a heart freezes in dread of your judgment.

So much hasn’t changed.

I owe my mother an apology. In high school, when it was time to choose electives, she wanted me to choose Spanish. She had changed her mind. She had, by then, put herself through college. An educated woman, working to remind herself every day that she was nothing to be ashamed of. I was a rebellious teenager. I knew what it meant to her, and I chose German.

This essay claims that I’m encouraging my husband to teach our son Spanish. But maybe I’m not encouraging him as much as I could.

Why? What if my husband spoke Italian? French? Some other Romance language, but one associated with an exotic European country, revered, respected by Americans?

Gabriel is six years old, and he doesn’t even know the basic phrases. “Hola, cómo te llamas?” “Mucho gusto.” “Gracias.” Am I afraid it would hinder him? Mark him? Will I tell him to check Caucasian on his school forms? Because my son is half-Mexican, and what does it often mean in this country to be Mexican? Dirty. Ignorant.

Dear Mother: I understand you now.

I’m going to try harder. Gabriel should have the choice. He should learn the language of his grandparents, and the proud history of his father’s heritage. He should be given the chance to enrich his life by becoming bilingual. And maybe, by the time he’s mastered the robust charm and graceful flow of my mother’s native tongue, Gabriel will be able to speak it without shame. It will be easier for him than it was for her. Because his skin is the color of cream.

And because, I hope, we will change.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website

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