My first breakdown in college was on the first day of my first year.
It started with my first Arabic class. I was both excited and terrified to start learning a new language. After 50 minutes, I was confused about who I was and why the heck I thought taking Arabic was a good idea. I began to remember my abuelo’s words from the day I told him I would be leaving Miami to study at Tufts.
“¿Como ella va a estudiar relaciones internacionales? Ella puede sacar buenas notas pero sin un segundo idioma, ella no va a llegar a ningún lado.”
“How is she going to study international relations? She can make good grades but without a second language, she won’t make it anywhere.”
I remember the crinkle on his forehead and the gray in his long black beard the day he spoke these words. I remember the sound of disappointment in his voice.
My proudly Nicaraguan grandfather speaks five languages, and I only speak one: English.
But that day, I understood every word he said. I know that he didn’t mean just any second language, he meant Spanish. To him, I could not be anything or do anything until I first learned Spanish. I believed him.
When my father immigrated to the US he had to learn English in order to go to school, to find a job, and to survive. His Spanish had to become secondary. Without English, my father wouldn’t have fallen for my Jamaican, English-only-speaking mother. My Spanish and my English are products of a system that privileges English. It is also a product of interracial love.
So, I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. I’ve spent my entire life feeling inadequate about not being able to speak Spanish. Complete strangers often tell me “¿no hablas español? ¡Que pena!” without even knowing my story.
That night, after my first Arabic class, I spent a lot of time crying and thinking. I was scared that taking Arabic meant that I would possibly never speak Spanish. I felt like an imposter in my own body. I felt like I couldn’t learn Arabic without first conquering the language to which I was supposed to have some kind of birthright. I dropped Arabic 1 for Spanish 2.
But Spanish classes do not help quiet the anxieties of my relationship with the language.
Every time I walk into my Spanish class I am confronted with what I am not. When I walk into class all tan-skinned, brown-haired, and with the last name Narvaez, people look at me like I’m out of place and I can’t help feel that I am. Spanish teachers, especially White American Spanish teachers, always do a double take when they see my name on their roster. They like to ask if I am in the right Spanish class. Yes, unfortunately, I am in the right Spanish class. And I will also confuse you because my pronunciation is beautiful but I still can’t seem to put sentences together sometimes because I am so ashamed of being a Latina who is taught my language by a White professor with White students who speak better than me.
These struggles with Spanish have always affected how I see myself as a Latina. I know I am not the only Latino student to struggle with my Spanish but sometimes it feels like I am.
A few weeks ago, I stepped into a house that was warm with the smell of chocolate and canela. I sat in the kitchen drinking hot chocolate and listening to people banter in spanglish. Even though my actual home smells more like curry and sounds like Patois, the Latino Center never fails to feel like home. I find a lot of comfort in the Latino center. It is a space that I feel has helped me to become a fuller me in my Latinidad and on campus. It’s the place where I learned that Latinidad has many skin tones and speaks many languages. I’ve been able to meet people who struggle with their Spanish and their identity in ways similar to me. Some of the moments when I feel most understood is when other Latinos tell me that they know how I feel. Some of us might still be struggling on the inside about how our languages relate to identity but it feels good to have someone else tell you that your identity is not solely based in a language you cannot seem to conquer.
I’m thinking about studying abroad in Spain or Chile. I know that going abroad will inevitably ignite another battle with my identity. People will continue to look at me with expectations that I cannot meet, and I will be immersed in cultures to which I will never fully belong. I don’t think the hurt will ever fade easily. But the difference now is that I am taking ownership of my Spanish. I’m not doing this for my abuelo or for the strangers who made me feel like I wasn’t Latina enough. Now, my Spanish is about and for me.