Spanish is the language of my roots and family. But when given the chance to learn it, I followed my peers and learned French. I know the taste of regret.

Spanish
A classroom in Havana, Cuba, 5 February 2016 (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

By Giavanna Bravo

At 10 years old, in the midst of an identity crisis, I was asked to make a decision that would have major implications for my future.

Before a meeting with my school adviser, I had no hesitation about signing up for French class. It was what all my peers were doing.

I sat down at the adviser’s desk, and she handed me a course selection sheet. On it, in a permanent Sharpie, I marked that I wanted to study French, not Spanish, the language of my roots and my family, who had immigrated from Mexico to the United States.

The adviser took the sheet away even more quickly than she’d given it to me.

I faced silent stares.

A month into middle school, I was thriving in French — in a limited sense. The vocab sheets never taught me how to express myself. But I understood how to blend in. Exposure was my only fear; failure didn’t matter. I feared my French teacher might try to compare French to Spanish, or somehow question my dark skin.

My parents’ divorce delayed the conversation regarding my choice of language studies. It was not until our pre-Christmas celebration that my aunt asked: “Which language are you taking?” Not knowing how it would affect my father, aunts and grandmother, I said: “I am taking French.”

In the paprika-scented room, I swallowed the taco my grandmother had made and waited until my drink was finished before looking up. I faced silent stares.

My grandmother, who speaks only Spanish, knew from the Latin roots of my words and the others’ hard silence that I was not studying her language. I could hear her voice and smell her especias secretas (“secret spices”), but I would never really understand her words.

I now embraced my identity.

Years later, surrounded by native Latin Americans at a Model United Nations conference, I started to embrace my heritage. I heard their stories and was inspired by their sense of pride. They didn’t care that I didn’t speak Spanish. They were happy to speak with someone who listened.

I now embraced my identity in a room full of open minds. Or perhaps I was caught in a storm of ignorance. I felt like a member of the community, but no one could truly support me when I sang Cardi B’s: “This is the new religion, bang, en latino gang, gang, yeh.”

Six months later, arriving at a pre-college summer program to learn about social political issues, I was greeted by a flood of South American girls.

“I’m Valeria,” a Venezuelan girl said.

“Hi, I’m Giavanna. I am also Latina,” I said with excitement.

I felt like a persona non grata.

Valeria began speaking to me in Spanish, and I had to give her the bad news. The smile fell from her face, and her body language changed. “Then how are you Latina?” she asked. I was shaking.

The first day of the program, people greeted me in Spanish. Unable to answer, I soon felt like a persona non grata. For three weeks, I was known as “The Latina from Connecticut who doesn’t speak Spanish.”

I fought the urge to sing and dance to the blasting reggaeton, fearing confrontation. Increasingly I thought back to the pungent scent of that Sharpie and my earlier fears of not fitting in.

The grains of paprika and sounds of “mariachi” will always be in my blood. But my lack of fluency has prevented me from fully assuming my Spanish identity.

I can call myself Mexican, play whatever music I want and celebrate my ethnicity. French has taught me je ne regrette rien (“I have no regrets”). But my first, missed opportunity to strengthen my ties with my Spanish heritage has taught me quite the opposite.

Spanish
Where Spanish is spoken around the world (Wikimedia Commons/Gabbykawaii07)

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Why does the author regret not studying Spanish?
  2. Why do schools typically offer courses in a second language?
  3. Do you see your language as a crucial part of your identity?

Giavanna Bravo is a third-year student at Greens Farms Academy from Easton, Connecticut and a News-Decoder Student Ambassador. She chairs two clubs — Preemptive Love and Cuatro Por Venezuela — as well as the school’s Model United Nations section. She enjoys learning languages and is currently studying French, Spanish and Arabic. Giavanna is interested in global affairs, political science, different cultures, acting, international law, traveling and writing.

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