Spanish has BY FAR been one of the biggest unexpected struggles I have faced since moving here to Tucson. Please allow me to expand on the fact that a week in Mexico did not help. I’m going to be frank in this blog post that my white privilege comes out a lot when I get frustrated over being monolingual. As a house, we have a goal to point out white supremacy when we see it, and I am expanding that right now to publicly admitting when I am wrong. There have been many times this year where I have felt just a pinch of what it must feel like to be a minority in a setting. However, even in those times that I think I understand, I am speaking on the stance of my privilege.
My job placement this year, primarily speaks Spanish. Our Monday meetings are in Spanish and everyone goes to great lengths trying to accommodate to me, but I hate the feeling that I am missing out on conversations and bonding moments. I get frustrated that I am missing out on so much due to not being able to be authentically open and be my normal talkative self in spaces. I also feel I am constantly letting down coworkers because answering the phone, calling clients, and even answering the door and doing basic office functions that I normally love to do, provide a struggle. Although I know basic phrases and with the help of a few coworkers am attempting to learn more, I get lost rather quickly as the conversation progresses.
In my second week in Tucson, I went out with coworkers to a sushi restaurant. The waiter spoke clearly to my coworkers in Spanish but not to me. He didn’t acknowledge me. When menus came around, one of my coworkers had trouble reading their options. As I leaned over to explain, I noticed my menu was in English and all the rest were in Spanish. I was being stereotyped. Correctly so, but still stereotyped.
A month in, I attempted to take a Spanish class at an intermediate level. I figured I took all four years in high school and a semester in college, I had a basic vocabulary and didn’t need to start from the beginning. Soon, however, I found I was mistaken. We were doing introductions around the room and were asked to give three things about ourselves. That was the only part of the class I understood. And luckily, I was the last to speak so all I had to do was copy my other two roommates that went before me. And luckily, although they were late, they made it. The end of the class didn’t go so well. We had to say something we learned from class today. Fortunately, I learned a lot from that class; unfortunately, I had no idea how to recite any of it in Spanish and this time we went counterclockwise around the room- I was first. I rushed out of the room after and apologized to the instructor that I didn’t feel I was ready for intermediate. I was STRUGGLING. I was also mad. I was mad at myself for not remembering, understanding, and being mono-lingual.
In Mexico this past month, I was presented with constant situations in which I was uncomfortable and frustrated with myself. Whether it be through buying things and talking with cashiers, asking questions of our tour guides, or even understanding firsthand the experiences and stories our guides, friends, and mentors were sharing. I wanted to be present but I was not ready to be vulnerable. I was learning from other’s vulnerability that week, that was enough right?
A few Mondays ago, I attended a meeting for my workplace. As soon as we got there, there was an announcement that there were translation devices (like walkie talkies) upfront for those that did not speak Spanish or English. Frustrated I turned to my coworker and in the echoed room stated, “this meeting is in English AND Spanish?” To which he (a native Spanish speaker) replied calmly, yes. I got my headset and wandered back to my seat and turned it on. The frustration grew when only two of the people spoke Spanish and the rest of the meeting was in English. It wasn’t until we went to approve proposals that I was put in my place. We were approving a proposal about the use of translators and equipment in event spaces, emails, and meetings. Everyone was confused at the request and organizations seemed to believe they were all doing well with translating and keeping lines of communication open for everyone. That’s when our personal translator (a bi-lingual woman who was translating the meeting in both languages through a walkie- talkie) spoke up and addressed that 3/4th of the room was bi-lingual. We could be having the whole meeting in Spanish and the same number that spoke English would need things translated like the current Spanish speakers were then. We as a culture assume and project that everyone knows English and if they don’t, they can follow along. We don’t think about the fact that it’s just as uncomfortable for Spanish speakers to struggle to understand- like it is frustrating for me to understand.
I was never more ashamed as I was in that meeting. As the translator was “pitching” why we should be doing better at accommodating to everyone, I had been agreeing and was frustrated that people weren’t understanding. Then, I realized just how many times I have been in the wrong this year and just how many times I have not given the same courtesy of “accommodation”. I have come to recognize (rather slowly) that through my frustrations, the person I am really mad at is myself. I am an independent person who is now limited by my language speaking abilities. I am mad at how it affects my social life and my work and its easier to get frustrated at others than myself and to admit that I am uncomfortable even trying to attempt speaking Spanish because it puts me in a vulnerable place. I thought I had the vulnerability component of being a YAV covered, I open up to more people than necessary and I share more than people need or want to know. Just as long as it is within my comfort zone of knowing what I am talking about. Just so long as it is in English.