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To speak another tongue

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Nestled in the valley, surrounded by vast mountains, is my home in Los Angeles. Stanford is very different from where I grew up. I went from speaking Spanish day and night, in and out of class, to only speaking Spanish once in a while. Now, I only speak Spanish when it comes to calling home or when I’m asked to be in someone’s class project about foreign language.

I’m prepared to highlight the experiences — both positive and negative — that I’ve encountered because of my language, but I know that my experience as a hispanic Latina differs from other hispanic and/or Latinx members of the community. Here are some unique experiences I’ve had in relation to speaking another tongue:

Meeting my roommate for the first time — an incredible moment. She’s from a community that appreciates a lot of Mexican culture, which we both loved to gush about. We speak to each other in my native tongue, so when I miss it, I carry conversations with her about reggaeton and art.

Her Spanish makes me feel warm again whenever I miss home.

My visit to the freshman dorms for the first time. I was in a room with people I didn’t know, and there came a point to the conversation where my last name was going to be guessed.

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. “Guzman, Hernandez, Lopez . .” it went on and my heart felt stuck in my throat. I had to put a smile on my face as I shook my head with every wrong name. It could’ve gone on longer if I hadn’t said that my last name would be hard to guess as it wasn’t very common.

When my friend and I decided to take an Uber to Palo Alto to feed our cravings for pastries. We got into the car and greeted the driver to no response.

As we were trying to leave campus, it was evident the driver was lost. My friend offered directions in English, but he was unresponsive to it. I pulled up his Uber profile on my phone and saw he didn’t speak English.

In Spanish, I helped direct him. The flood of relief was apparent in the way his facial expressions relaxed and his grip on the steering wheel loosened. I knew what that feeling of not knowing what others were saying was like — worrying about angering someone, worrying about being told to go back to my country.

I couldn’t help but worry about him for the rest of the weekend. I hope he’s okay.

When I was really into a person who was gentle with their smile and eager to know more about me. We sat on the hood of his car and watched the stars.

He brings up that he wants to go to Madrid. I exclaim that I’ve always wanted to visit Spain. He begins talking about how his Spanish sucks, then proceeds to ask me if I speak Spanish. Before I can answer, he responds, “Of course you do!”

Then he gives me his phone with Apple Music open and his “Latin playlist” on the screen. He asks me if I can put cool Latin music on his playlist because he sometimes gets in the mood to listen to exotic things.

When I’m sitting in Lake Lag after coming back from an intense spin class with my roommate. Our friends unexpectedly join us and it turns out they’re native speakers too.

We start off our conversation exploring whether the other speaks fluent Spanish, and once we all realize we do, we explode with excitement. We cry and we laugh about not being able to practice something so close to us since going to college. I leave dinner with warm cheeks and a smile.

Introsems. They scare me because I actually have to speak in every single class section. People’s large vocabularies and powerful insights seem so foreign to me. I’m worried about the way that I speak. I am asked numerous times where I was from. I know they don’t mean if I’m from Los Angeles.

I confide to a dorm friend about how insecure I feel about my speech patterns and they genuinely seem to understand. They console my worries and reassure me.

That night, we have a get together with all our dorm friends. This person begins to tell a story about how one of the hispanic workers told them something. The janitorial woman had an accent when she spoke to him. He mimicked her in an exaggerated Spanish accent and degraded her work.

He then looks at me and tells me not to worry because I’m not like them at all.

When one of my best friends takes a Spanish class. She has to interview a native Spanish speaker and document the interview. It’s been a couple of weeks since I last spoke in my native tongue for longer than two minutes to catch up with my family.

She asks me questions about my life back home, what I want to do when I “grow up” and what my family is like.

I get excited, spilling all the beans about my vacations in Mexico and the staff in local shops who always call me “mija.” The timer goes off, indicating that we’ve reached our ten minute mark. She ignores the timer and lets me continue explaining my culture to her in the comfort of Spanish. She listens with big eyes.

I admire the passionate friend I had made. Somehow, our conversation leads to the discussion of accents. I had already been told that week that my accent was cute. It was the right mixture of valley girl and hispanic.

They’d gone into a tangent about how it irks them to hear broken English. How it’s difficult to understand, bothersome to make the extra effort. How music in different languages is stupid.

I get my English idioms mixed up. In Spanish, the adjective comes after the noun, so  I say things like that in English too. I read a lot of books back home, but never got to practice saying the words out loud, so I mispronounce some things. When I speak, sometimes I stutter, because I get so nervous translating in my head.

I try to make argumentative points, but they are immediately struck down when people correct me after every word, every sentence. My content is of no significance, because I mispronounce new words I wanted to try. They leave my room and I feel humiliated.

I cry that night. I cry all night and call my mom the next day and cry to her on the phone. She tells me it’s going to be all right, because I am exactly where I need to be.

These are only a few number of encounters I’ve experienced. There are plenty more stories of guys at parties asking me whether I could dance like Shakira, people asking where I’m really from and whether it was true that Spanish girls did salsa when doing intimate things.

I wanted to highlight my experience as a woman of color who speaks a different tongue. I love my identity and I love being here at Stanford, but as I reflect on my freshman year here, I also wanted to reflect on my interactions with different people. There are people whose comments are unknowingly hurtful, and there are some comments which seem too hurtful to not be intentional, but I write in hopes that this brilliant and beautiful community will grow in the right direction.

Contact Rachel Ochoa at racochoa ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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