Speaking Spanish in America

Speaking Spanish in America

I live in the US with my Peruvian born wife and my two infant children. We’re a bilingual family accustomed to speaking Spanish in public and at home. In light of recent race tensions, a friend of mine urged me to write this article. I sent it to the local paper, and within a few days the original post had earned 34,000 likes. I’ve been getting inundated with messages and comments (most of them supportive and positive…a few hateful). Needless to say, the last few days have been a bit overwhelming.

I plan to follow up on this article over the next few weeks, especially as the viral life of the original article runs its course. I’d like to share some of the stories that have been shared with me. This has been an eye opening experience, and the one thing that is clear is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there that need to be discussed and corrected as soon as possible. Remember, everyone living on the American continent has a right to call himself or herself American.

Here’s the original article:

Speaking Spanish in America

I’m an American.

I was born in America to American parents. I have a US passport and a Bachelor of Science in English. I eat apple pie, play baseball, and can drive a manual transmission. I own a bolt-action Browning .243 and can hit a target with decent accuracy and precision.

As an American I’m free, and with that freedom I elected to move to Lima, Peru in 2001. I spent nearly a decade there, learned Spanish, and got married. In 2009 my wife and I moved to Eau Claire. My wife was born and raised in Peru. She came here on an immigration visa and got her citizenship in 2014, legally and by the book. We jumped through every hoop, paid every tax and fee, and said, “thank you for the opportunity.”

I have two young daughters who were born in 2010 and 2012. They are Americans. They have US passports. In America, you’re taught to honor your grandparents. That’s a tradition like baseball. My daughters’ grandparents live in Lima and don’t speak English. As a result, my wife and I have taught our children to speak Spanish.

Prior to Trump’s candidacy, there was only one instance when my family was berated for speaking Spanish in public. It happened at the drive-in. I’d gone in to get some popcorn, and the high school kids in the stall next to us began muttering to my wife.

“This is America, in America we speak English.”

I find it peculiar that the kids chose to address my wife and infant daughters rather than me. If the issue was important to them, you’d think they’d want to tell the 225 lb, 6 foot tall man as well. However, when I returned with the popcorn and heard the story, I called out, “Who wants to talk to me in English? I speak English perfectly. I’m standing right here. Let’s have a discussion about the merits of Spanish and English.”

Nobody answered.

I guess it wasn’t that important after all, so maybe they shouldn’t have said anything from the start.

Since Trump’s candidacy, there have been five instances of people approaching my wife and daughters and berating them for speaking Spanish. To date, I’ve never been approached. I make sure to speak Spanish as loudly and as often as I can because I’m interested having this discussion with someone, but they never seem inclined to talk to me. However, they don’t hesitate to scold my 6 and 4 year old daughters.

They approached my daughters on the playground at Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls.

“Don’t speak Spanish! This is America! We don’t speak Spanish in America!”

Sometimes it’s little kids, sometimes it’s their parents.

I step forward and tell my girls to ignore the imbeciles, in Spanish of course. Thankfully “imbecile” is the same in both languages.

Again, nobody tells me not to speak Spanish.

There is a strange hysteria in this country about a person’s right to speak only one language, and a misconception that people who are bilingual somehow infringe upon that right. People perceive a non-English conversation as an assault. They feel justified in sharing memes on Facebook such as “Mexican word of the day” in which they mock the accents and sounds of foreign language, and celebrate their own ignorance.

For me, foreign language acquisition is a component of capitalism. There’s a lot of money in Spanish speaking nations. How am I supposed to extract it and bring it over to American banks without speaking the language? Are people who hate foreign language communists? We could invade I suppose, but sweet talking people out of their assets is a lot less expensive.

It will be a few months before Trump takes office, but his followers have already been emboldened. Will it get to the point where my daughters will become afraid to be heard speaking in Spanish? Will it get to the point where people start scolding a full grown man instead of his wife and children?

Frankly, I doubt it because the kind of people that berate women and children are cowards.

We are about to enter a brief moment in time when people feel encouraged to celebrate ignorance. I will continue to teach my children Spanish, because this age of ignorance will end. Furthermore I’m encouraged by the fact that on the other side my children will have a marketable skill. Somehow I don’t think they’ll have trouble finding a job in the future, especially since so many today steadfastly refuse to acquire what are sure to be necessary skills.

Those of you who wish to learn, come find me in the park. Say hello, and I will reply with, “Bienvenido!”

Walter Rhein is the author of Reckless Traveler, a novel about the expat experience in Lima, Peru. Please sign up for the Streets of Lima newsletter and share your thoughts and experiences with a growing community of like-minded people.

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  1. […] He also occasionally sends in an editorial to the local paper. In 2016 his article Speaking Spanish in America was the most read article for the Eau Claire Leader Telegram with 242,000 […]

  2. Sherri Rodriguez

    I understand why your article was so well accepted right now. Everyone is in an uproar over what President Trump is going to do about Spanish immigrants. Everyone has to have a ” Cause ” to fight for. Did anyone stop to think that if one third of the American population moved to another country where they didn’t speak English that they sure as heck wouldn’t change their Language to English. If we moved to their Country they would expect us to adapt to their ways, their ways and not expect the Government to pay for them to live there and not even care enough to become Citizens of the Country they came to for a better life? I don’t think so. I am not talking about just Spanish. I was growing up in Miami Florida during the time when the Cubans were floating in on anything they could find. Next came the Haitians. One of the girls in my seventh grade class had ten brothers and sisters. She said her Mom kept having babies (by assorted men) so she could get more money from the Government. As far as I know we have always taken in just about anyone who wanted or needed to come here for any reason. Hell, Obama was going to let them build a mosque near the same place other Muslim terrorists blew up our towers and killed all our people. Of course, he was one of them. By you speaking Spanish in public you are insulting the rest of us. What you do in your own home is your own business. When you do something in public that makes it MY business. I know when people are speaking English and the minute I get close they switch to Spanish. THAT is rude and insulting. I should not have to hear that Miami, where all the Cubans came for asylum is trying to make their National language Spanish. We saved them and all they want to do is build a new Cuba. In the land they ran to for help. Who gave them jobs over white, more qualified people, so there would be no cry of discrimination. Or the people I’ve known who used someone else’s SS# because they aren’t here legally. Or people married just to gain Citizenship. It’s all a Crock. As for you, I think you are a writer and though you may be sincere, saw an opportunity to really get major attention by writing about a very touchy, volatile situation. No matter which side you were on, you would have gotten the same amount of publicity. Describing the way you act shows you are under the impression that you can do anything you want. That in itself shows me that you are seditious, you feel entitled, you don’t have any respect for the people around you if you purposely change to Spanish when others are around in public and would respond in Spanish to a hello just because you think someone might want to learn Spanish. You are rude and best of all you consider yourself a writer. Spanish shouldn’t be a marketable skill American has always been an English speaking Country why should that change for you? If it’s that important to you. Go live in a Spanish speaking Country. Oh, wait, you wouldn’t get the same pay, or, 401k or insurance or Social security or freedom! Sorry, I forgot. Whiny don’t you go fight for Women’s rights? That’s been done before and they Already have what they are marching for. Or for the African Americans who destroy their own neighborhoods and burn their own homes and businesses. These things are all ridiculous. Believe it or not, I have never been a racist but during this election I got pretty close. The way everyone reacted was insane. Now, and before he was even sworn in, people went crazy about what they Thought he was going to do. The man means business..If he is going to fix this Country then he has to work fast because we are in a mess and a good part of it is the influx of people we have to take care of and drugs. The people who are discriminated against more than any others is the white American Male. Didn’t expect that. But it’s true. Everyone needs to get over it and shut up and give Trump a chance. He can’t do his best for you If you’re having protests and riots, and killing police. That’s not the way to get anything. I personally would push their problems (demands) to the bottom of my to do file. Enough. You caught me on a really bad day. I feel sympathy for you.

  3. 01/27/2017

    Hello Sherri Rodriguez,
    I’m sorry, but you have the incorrect information on a number of issues. I think you’d be a lot less frustrated in your own life if you’d take a few minutes to educate yourself. Here are some starters. feel free to independently verify:
    1. I’ve lived in foreign countries, a lot of US expats don’t bother to learn a foreign language. This is exactly the scenario you describe in the first part of your comment.
    2. The US has no official language. Look it up.
    3. The Constitution (not Obama) allows for anyone to build a Mosque anywhere they want in the US. We have freedom of religion in the US. Trump couldn’t stop that either–nor should he.
    4. When I do something legal in public it’s NOT your business. I can speak whatever language I want to. I am under no obligation to speak so that you can understand me. If you consider that rude, it’s your problem, not mine.
    5. Spanish is a marketable skill because of international trade.
    6. America has not always been an English speaking country. Some states were Spanish speaking historically. Also, there were once dominant Native American languages.
    7. I have lived in a Spanish speaking country. The food and the health care were superior to what I get in the US. I’ve considered going back many times.
    8. I do fight for women’s rights, and they don’t have everything they’re marching for.
    9. I fight for the rights of African Americans too, I fight for the rights of all Americans. That’s predominantly why I oppose Trump.
    10. America doesn’t need to be fixed.
    11. I don’t believe White American males are discriminated against.
    12. I gave Trump a chance when he said he’d release his tax returns if elected. He didn’t. Chance over.
    13. No Anti-Trump rioters have killed police.
    14. Thanks for having sympathy for me. I have sympathy for you too.

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