Slipping Into Spanish

01/15/2016 12:15 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2017
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"Está todo chévere," he says when I call to ask about the cabinet that he's building for me. I know immediately what he means. We use the word chévere in Panama. It means "everything's cool."

This prompts me to ask where he's from. The cabinetmaker laughs, "De Ecuador!"

My American husband Daniel -- who lived in Chile for six months -- hears me down the hall. He calls out, "¡Macanudo!" which is another way of saying, "It's great. No sweat."

I am white, middle-aged and thin. I dress in slim-cut jeans and wear clunky rectangular glasses, blending easily into the suburban backdrop where I live. After more than half a lifetime in the in the country I've chosen, I am more at ease in English than in my native Spanish.

A Latina? A Hispanic? (Almost) no accent. Doesn't look the part.

When I meet a Spanish-speaking person and say a word or two, "Hola. ¿Cómo está, señorita?" she will be surprised. But not so much in New York. Or in Texas, or Massahusetts. We Spanish-speaking natives are beginning to assume that everyone speaks Spanish.

***

The manager at the local storage facility turns out to be from Santo Domingo. There is an attentiveness in her way of addressing me that I recognize. When she discovers that I was born in Panama, she exclaims, "Usted no parece panameña." "You don't look Panamanian."

I know exactly what she means: I should be Black. While there's a great diversity of skin color and race in Panama, the majority of panameños who've settled in New York are of Caribbean origin; their skin shades, black and brown.

At a Caribbean Day Parade on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, as I was standing on the sidewalk holding a tiny Panama flag made of paper and watching the dancers in bright, feathered costumes, a young dancer broke the ranks and ran to me. "¿Panameña?" she asked. When -- startled -- I admitted, "sí," she reached for my cheek and planted a kiss.

***

A recent study by the Instituto Cervantes reports that there are an estimated 52.6 million people in the United States who speak Spanish. Forty-one million are native speakers; the others, their bilingual children and second language learners. This is more Spanish speakers than in Spain, and only second to Mexico. There are immigrants like me from all 21 Spanish speaking nations -- from Argentina, Honduras and Peru, among the others.

In these countries, class differences, shade of skin, and occupation will almost certainly keep us apart. Here in the melting pot, where we arrive daily for paying work and new horizons, the comfort of language trumps -- and the lubricant of courtesies. Our shared commitment to family and respect for elders is assumed. The fast, workaday American culture recedes. It takes on the role of "other." We Latinos and Hispanos open up to one another. The familiarity of us becomes the "we."

***

The middle-aged men at the local supermarket unpacking fresh vegetables and removing questionable ones from the shelves exchange what to me are shockingly vulgar jokes, openly assuming that their Spanish -- which separates them from the Anglos -- provides a shield of invisibility. "¿Donde están los mangos?" I ask, nudging them into awareness.

He comes once a year to my garden to re-establish the bushes. "La azalea tiene que respirar," he says in his low raspy voice. "The azalea's got to breathe." The Mexican man is dressed in a light-weight wool jacket and well-cut, pale blue shirt. He has risen from basic gardener to run his own crew. His specialty: pruning. "I now work by the hour," he tells me in Spanish. "If I rush, I will make mistakes." He steps back, rethinks, adjusts. An artist myself, I understand. "I picked vegetables in Mexico as a child," he tells me. "I write poetry now." And he recites in his beautiful voice, "De tantos hombres que soy, somos, no puedo encontrar a ninguno..." quoting the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.

***

Yellow neon! I'd remembered right. The garage on 84th street was open even though parking facilities on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had been shutting down to make room for new luxury buildings. A good friend had published her book, and I'd driven into the city to attend the book signing. The roads were shiny and black and it was murderously cold.

I queued up behind two cars in the middle of the block. The wide doorway was bright with an attendant in the dazzling open, his face wide, no hat, a uniform. He noticed me crammed into the street and mouthed some words. I knew what he meant. But I stayed put.

He walked towards me. He was a little bit stout, some American Indian in his face. I made a guess.

¿Señor, no quepo?" "Do I fit, señor?" my voice wavered. I was beginning to feel distraught.

"There's nothing, señora, lo siento," he responded immediately in Spanish. Took pity. "Look over there, at the corner, señora. One space! Half hour only on the Muni." The attendant pointed behind me where I'd just turned on Broadway. It would be tough to drive backwards half a block in the dark. "Give me your keys, I'll do it," he said. "I'll meet you at the Muni, señora."

At the Muni in the half dark I had trouble deciding what to do and pulled out two dollars I wouldn't use a card for two dollars, but it was hard to read the sign. Within five minutes of this the attendant was at my side, where fidgeting with the machine, I'd almost dropped my purse.

"Aquí tiene sus llaves," he said, returning my keys. He helped me swipe my card into the Muni, the forgotten dollars in my hand. I thanked him, gave him the two. Clearly he'd not done this gallant thing for a tip, but he took it and smiled. Then he headed back to the garage, where a parade of cars was waiting.