Samantha Torres | Language Barriers

“You’re not American. You’re Dominican,” my father said as he slid his Gillette razor along his dark skinned jaw. His salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back with hairspray.

I sighed and rolled my eyes as I rested my back against the tiled wall of my bathroom. I silently cursed myself for even stepping out of my bedroom.

Every time I was home from college, my father would corner me and remind me of the Dominican blood coursing through my veins and that I needed to speak Spanish. Yet he always disregarded the fact that my mother is Puerto Rican and I’m American. I reminded him of this constantly.

“I hate Puerto Rican people,” he said.

“But you’re married to one.”

“I was drunk the whole time,” he joked.

I shook my head and took this interlude as an opportunity to retreat back to my bedroom. The racial tension and aggression my father has towards Puerto Ricans is a hateful trait I never acquired. My dad blamed Puerto Ricans–my mother’s side of the family–for all the misfortune in his own life. He always told us kids that Puerto Ricans were the worst people in the world.

And though I don’t agree with his view of Puerto Ricans, I completely understood where he was coming from when it came to speaking Spanish. It is important for me to comprehend my heritage and speak the language because it’s a piece of who I am, but what he didn’t understand was the struggle I faced.

I lay back in my bed and stared at the ceiling. My dark purple and lavender painted walls were covered with bright colored construction paper. I went through a phase of constantly writing down every quote I loved from Google searches, but my mother wouldn’t let me write on the walls, so I had to use paper.  I recalled growing up trying to keep up with my dad as he spoke to me in Spanish and fumbling with the words to respond. At the same time, trying to learn English in school and talking with my siblings and mother in English.

I felt like I was staring into the eye of a tornado, watching the chaos around me but encased at the center of it all.

Over time, I got into the habit of speaking to my father in Spanish and everyone else in English, eventually adapting Spanglish as my first language. However, that wasn’t how the American school system functioned. When it came time to learn how to read, my father couldn’t help me because he barely spoke English,and my mother was constantly busy with work or my rebellious siblings.

My mother wanted to be more involved in my life. She constantly checked on my homework whenever she was home from work. She always told me that I was her “smart cookie.” Yet statements like that got overshadowed by my brother and sister fighting throughout the house and my sister constantly running away.  My siblings learned to speak Spanish and were comfortable with it, but since I was the youngest they picked on me the most. They kept speaking to me in English against my father’s wishes and mocked me whenever I tried speaking Spanish with them. I started to hate speaking Spanish because of them, and I didn’t want to practice my culture. I just wanted to be American.

Still, I sat inside and bent and twisted my tongue, like toffee, to match the sounds and pronunciations of the words printed in my school books. I became very self-conscious of how thick my Spanish accent was whenever I tried reading, and at how slow and incorrect I would read the words.

I grew nervous about reading aloud in school because the other kids teased me: “You can’t read! You speak weird!” they said. I often told the teacher about the students’ relentless criticism and was soon deemed a snitch. Occasionally, there’d be that one professor who tried to “push me” and forced me to read full passages aloud. As I stumbled through the words, I heard the other kids laughing at me and whispering about my dysfunctional reading. The teacher complimented how well I pronounced the words, but when you’re in middle school, the last thing you want to hear is how great you’re reading. It was like everything I did was wrong, in school and at home.

I sat up in my queen-sized bed and looked at the bookshelves filled with all the novels I’d read over the years. I became dedicated, almost obsessive, with English after the teasing and torment. I read all the books I could get my hands on and wrote every single day through journals, diaries, failed attempts at poetry and erratic experimentation of songs. All this preparation for my American culture, but I still neglected my Hispanic heritage.

As I grew older, my Spanish became more botched and limited. My family in the Dominican Republic laughed as I mumbled responses to them or whenever I had to ask my father how to say a certain word. I barely connected with any of them, and this only made me want to disconnect from my Spanish culture more.  Why would I force myself into a heritage that people constantly ridiculed me for?

Gorda!” My dad called from the living room. I frowned, got up from bed, and walked across the wooden floor to him. My dad scowled at me as I sat on the computer chair. “Tienes que practicar español porque las personas que hablan dos idiomas son mas valiosos en el mundo laboral,” my father explained.

“I know that speaking two languages makes me more valuable.” I stared at the uneven floorboards. I’d memorized the pattern of the darker wood and the abrupt intrusion of the lighter ones as the boards flowed along the floor. “I’m trying.”

Entonces practica,” he said sternly.

Every time I called my father on the phone, I practiced my Spanish. I spoke to my late grandmother as well and my grandfather in Spanish. What else was I supposed to do? Once I’d gotten to college I made friends with these women that were so comfortable with their heritage and proud to be who they were. I wanted to be like them, so confident in my background and present state that no one could hassle me.

My friend Diana really influenced me the most. She’s such a strong person, who overcame a family full of men that don’t encourage women to receive an education because women are led to believe that they must strive for marriage and family. She’s also proud of her Ecuadorian heritage. And when she speaks Spanish she doesn’t mumble like I do. She speaks with a clarity and confidence I wish to own.

So now when I speak to my father, I’m proud to respond in Spanish. “Hola papi,” I said as he answers.

Gorda, dime tu historia,” he replied.

Nada viejo, que tu haces,” I asked as I earned a couple of side glances from passing Plattsburgh college students. But that doesn’t matter to me because it’s pretty badass that I can speak two languages and write and read in them. It’s been handy whenever my friends and I want to share a private moment or make jokes in class. And though I have moments where I trip up in both languages, I’m proud of all three of my cultures. Yo soy Dominicana y Boricua and I am American.

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