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.”
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.