Originally published as “At a Loss for Words” at Being Latino Online Magazine
At the age of 7 ½ my parents decided to separate and Mami packed up my three siblings and me, and we left Puerto Rico; Chicago bound. I had graduated first grade just a few months before and had confidently learned to say the words butter and water (both pronounced with a hard T like the British), but unfortunately that was where my knowledge of the English language ended.
My lack of knowledge didn’t bother me until I started second grade a few months later. I was in a bilingual class but I had classmates that had been in bilingual classes since kindergarten and knew so much more than I did. In my attempts to fit in I tried to show off the new words I was learning, but pronounced yellow as jello and birthday as birfday. As kids are apt to do, they laughed. I was already a shy kid and being made fun of was tragic to me. Determined not to be made fun of anymore, I decided to make it my life mission to perfect the English language, so I buried myself in books and read, wrote, and practiced endlessly.
A few years later Mami decided that we would move to Utah. If a bilingual class in Chicago was a culture shock, enrolling in a Utah sixth grade class full of mostly blonde, blue-eyed kids was a culture earthquake. My world had once again been turned upside-down and I was once again forced to adjust my mindset. This time I would not be made fun of. I began to communicate solely in English, and although Mami always responded in Spanish, it wasn’t enough and I slowly lost my grasp on my first language. By the time we moved back to Chicago when I was 15, English had become my first language. Upon hearing me speak, my latino friends said, “You sound like a white girl.” While my other friends said, “Wow, you don’t have an accent at all.” Somehow this was ok with me.
Now as an adult who recently moved back to Puerto Rico, I struggle to communicate clearly. More often than not my mind has to work overtime to translate my English thoughts into Spanish words. I become frustrated and regress to being that 7 ½ year old girl, embarrassed when I am corrected as I misuse and/or mispronounce words. And I am just as determined to master the Spanish language now as I was to master the English language then. I am wishing that somewhere along the way someone had told me that not only did I NOT have to give up that part of me to fit in, but that it was even more important not to as I would eventually regret it.
Update: I spent almost a year in Puerto Rico and I left with a feeling that I regained by first language. I make a daily effort to speak Spanish so that I will never lose it again.