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Erika L. Sánchez Headshot

I Grew Up Speaking Spanish, But Sometimes It Gets Rusty

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I didn't learn to speak English until I was about four. And who do I have to thank for teaching me? Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus. Bert and Ernie. That's right-- "Sesame Street" taught this little Mexican how to speak English. In my living room on weekday mornings eating my Froot Loops, I learned that sharing was really freaking cool and that "C" was for cookie. And like most children, I grasped the language immediately. My little brain was malleable and ready to absorb anything. God bless PBS.

At home, I grew up speaking Spanish almost exclusively, but I was educated almost entirely in the English language. I first fell in love with poetry after reading Edgar Allen Poe. I can't even explain how my heart filled with glee when I read "MacBeth" or how haunted I was by the work of Emily Dickinson. It all sounded so beautiful. At 12, I decided to be a writer. I loved English so much that I majored it in college and then foolishly got a Masters degree in English Creative Writing.

But like many second generation Chicanas and Latinas, Spanish remains my language of strong emotion. When I get mad it's "¡Ch**a tu madre!" When am surprised it's "¡Dios mio!" When I'm annoyed with someone it's "¡Cómo jodes!" When I hurt myself it's not "Ow!" but "¡Ay!" Even my boyfriend has appropriated these phrases.

Sometimes I get nervous when I speak Spanish, though. Despite being a native and fluent Spanish speaker, I get overwhelmed when discussing something complex, such as literature in my native tongue. I feel stupid. I feel flustered even after speaking it my whole life, even after living abroad in Spanish speaking countries. My vocabulary is just much more extensive in English. It was the language in which I learned how to formulate complex ideas and arguments. It's the language in which I've done most of my reading and writing. I am also not as quick-witted in Spanish. When I lived in Spain, I sometimes felt that people didn't really get a good idea of what my sense of humor was like. I wanted to yell, "I promise I'm funnier than this! Please believe me! Here, please let me do a funny jig for you!"

Also, because I primarily speak English at work and at home with my boyfriend, my Spanish skills can get a bit rusty. Sometimes I forget the simplest of words and I am horrified by it. I'm all, "Yo quiero... eat. Dame ese... cup." Ok, it's not that bad, but it's embarrassing! I feel like I'm causing shame to my ancestors, like the ghosts of my brown and braided great-grandmothers will come scare the mess out of me when I am making a yellow cheese quesadilla.

But sometimes identity is messy, confusing, and contradictory.

I should learn to accept all it all and just laugh when I can't, for the life of me, think of the Spanish equivelant for "scalawag," when I notice I have an accent in both languages, or when my white boyfriend says, "Give me that chancla" without a shred of irony. It's all part of the dizzying American experience, isn't it?