As the immigrant debate heats up, more people are talking about how residents of the United States should learn English, and I agree. But I also believe that I would not be the American I am without speaking Spanish.
My mother jokes that someone switched her daughter with another at the hospital. It is the only way she can explain how I, an American of Italian, Czech and Scottish descent, could be so passionate about Spanish and the people who speak it. Like many Americans, I started studying the language in middle school, choosing it more out of inertia than anything else, but it was when I waitressed the summer before college that I realized what a difference the language would make in my life.
It was the 80s, and many of the people I worked with had fled a Central America ravaged by civil war. My Spanish gave me the privilege of hearing inspiring stories of strength, suffering and sacrifice, making me realize how little my suburban New York existence had taught me about the world. The experience prompted me to major in Latin American Studies, putting me in contact with people with backgrounds much more varied than mine, but with cultures and values surprisingly similar to my own. And when I graduated college, my Spanish helped secure me a spot in an exchange program to Mexico, birthplace of the man who is now my husband.
Beyond the relationships Spanish helped me forge, the language also brought me practical benefits. When I waited tables, the largest tip I ever received was from a Latin American tourist impressed that I could take his order in Spanish. When my parents opened up a vertical blind business, the “Spanish Spoken Here” sign brought us some of our best customers. When I worked as a journalist, Spanish gave me the independence to interview people, read the news and travel from country to country with no need for a translator. And now, as a multicultural communications consultant, it is to my understanding of the Spanish-speaking market that I owe most of my clients.
Learning Spanish has not only benefited me, but helped me help others. Time and time again, at the bank, in the hospital, at the airport, Spanish has enabled me to bridge the gap between someone in need and someone who could not—or at times would not—lend a hand. And, as I travel to Latin America for work or leisure, Spanish has also helped me dispel negative stereotypes of Americans as people who expect everyone in the world to speak to them in English.
The challenge for me as a parent is keeping my children from losing their Spanish. Though my husband speaks to them in Spanish only, they are starting to answer back in English, and that worries me. I want to make sure my kids also reap the personal and professional benefits that I have Spanish to thank.
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