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Why And When We Speak Spanish Among Ourselves In Public

by Myriam Marquez


June 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

It's a matter of respect.

When I'm shopping with my mother or standing in line with my stepdad to order fast food or anywhere else we might be together, we're going to speak to one another in Spanish.

That may appear rude to those who don't understand Spanish and overhear us in public places, such as shopping centers, restaurants, the driver's license office.

Those around us may get the impression that we're talking about them. They may wonder why we would insist on speaking in a foreign tongue, especially if they knew that my family has lived in the United States for 40 years and that my parents do understand English and speak it, albeit with difficulty and a heavy accent.

Let me explain why we haven't adopted English as our official family language.

For me and most of the bilingual people I know, it's a matter of respect for our parents and comfort in our cultural roots.

It's not meant to be rude to others. It's not meant to alienate anyone or to "Balkanize" America.

It's certainly not meant to be un-American -- what constitutes an "American" being defined by English speakers from North America.

Being an American, to those of us who dare to speak Spanish among ourselves in public, has very little to do with what language we use during our free time in a free country. From its inception, this country was careful not to promote a government-mandated official language.

We understand that English is the common language of this country and the one most often heard in international-business circles from Peru to Norway. We know that, to get ahead here, one must learn English.

But that ought not mean that somehow we must stop speaking in our native tongue whenever we're in a public area, as if we were ashamed of who we are, where we're from. As if talking in Spanish -- or any other language, for that matter -- is some sort of litmus test used to gauge American patriotism.

Throughout this nation's history, most immigrants -- whether from Poland or Finland or Italy or wherever else -- kept their language through the first generation and, often, the second. I suspect that they spoke among themselves in their native tongue -- in public. Pennsylvania even provided voting ballots written in German during much of the 1800s for those who weren't fluent in English.

In this century, Latin American immigrants and others, such as Puerto Ricans whose U.S. citizenship is automatic by nature of that island's commonwealth status, have fought for this country in U.S.-led wars. They have participated fully in this nation's democracy by voting, holding political office and paying taxes. And they have watched their children and grandchildren become so "American" that they resist speaking in Spanish.

You know what's rude?

When there are two or more people who are bilingual and another person who speaks only English and the bilingual folks all of a sudden start speaking Spanish, which effectively leaves out the English-only speaker. I don't tolerate that.

One thing's for sure. If I'm ever in a public place with my mom or dad and bump into an acquaintance who doesn't speak Spanish, I will switch to English and introduce that person to my parents. They will respond in English, and do so with respect.

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