Latina Heritage

So yeah, I Oughtta be Fluent in Español

My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?

Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)

More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!

Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.


Family photo
Parents with baby Rebecca

My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.

I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.

It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.

The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.

I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.

Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.

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Latina Heritage

Dad’s Spanish: Secret Stair to High-level English

corn-on-the-cob-2083529_640.jpgDuring his first years as a citizen, my Dad, a native Guatemalan, worked hard to become fluent in English. My mom translated a lot of conversations, forms, and birthday cards. Soon, though, he picked up the language. Immersed in English at his job, in the home, and on TV, he had to sink or swim. This was Iowa, 1968. Lots of corn, no tortillas, I like to say. Dad swam.

An unexpected thing about that Spanish knowledge: it served him well. Not only from a brain-connectivity standpoint (which studies say is significant for bilinguals), but in terms of learning high-level English. Because Latin underlies Spanish, the complicated words of the SAT, the university, and the highly-educated came easily to him.

Where an English-speaking student struggled to memorize a medical word, for example, my dad already knew its meaning. What does cardiac have to do with the word heart? Nothing, in our Anglo-Saxon-based English. In Spanish, heart is corazón. What does pulmonary have to do with the word lung? For me, nothing. In Spanish, lung is pulmón.


I’d see a native English speaker search for the “fancy” word to complete a sentence. “I love beef,” an Iowan might say. “I’m what you call a . . . Um . . . ” Carnivore! My dad supplied the word readily. Carne is Spanish for meat. Another person might say, “I’m glad I wasn’t taken to jail, you know . . .” Incarcerated! Jail = carcel in Spanish = easy for Dad.

Shakespeare’s plays challenge even English speakers, but here Dad found his Spanish useful again. Many words that prompt me to search for a footnote give my dad no trouble. Act II of As You Like It uses this line: “If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it to be food for thee.” Here, savage means wild, as in a wild animal. My ear doesn’t hear it that way, but a Spanish speaker hears salvaje behind savage, and salvaje means wild. Hamlet‘s Act I includes the phrase “Nature, crescent, does not grow alone.” As my mind goes to “crescent moon,” a Spanish speaker’s thoughts turn to crecer, which means to grow. That is exactly the meaning here. Shakespeare’s vocabulary drips with Latin. Spanish speakers take it in stride.


Shakespeare’s inverted word order trips us up too. But Spanish’s word order is more flexible than English’s. While this sounds mixed up to my ear, “Only there are three apples,” it makes a correct Spanish sentence, “Solo hay tres manzanas.” When Shakespeare writes “Away from the light steals home my heavy son,” in Romeo and Juliet, I rearrange it to “My heavy son steals home, away from the light.” Spanish speakers can reference constructions like “Me gusta la manzana,” which is “It pleases me the apple.”

Plenty of folks worried about my dad when he stepped off the plane into an English-speaking world. Turns out, he carried knowledge that helped him go to college and graduate Cum Laude, a Latin phrase that he, more than I, readily understands.

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Writing Tips

Emerson’s inspiration for writers

Ralph Waldo Emerson stands as one of America’s great thinkers and mystics. Credited with giving voice to Transcendentalism, he drew his lectures from extensive private journals. His famous speeches include one that especially inspires me as a writer: “The Poet.”

Who is a writer? Instead of someone who is producing a certain number of words or someone who is getting good at Beat Sheets and queries, Emerson defines a writer (and a poet in particular) as one who has

never ceased to explore the . . . meaning of every sensuous fact.”

Sensory objects and sensory experiences are not just stimulants for writers; we explore their meaning or even meanings. For Emerson, physical objects are “externizations” of a soul, ideas that have traveled from the thought realm into manifestation. And the writer who examines objects, people, and situations is discovering expressions of universal truth. If Emerson is right, then we are not merely relating stories in our novels; we are mapping out the meaning of human experience.

What does a writer do? Emerson says,

[The writer] apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”

Again, Emerson points to the writer as revealing insights about not only the personal, but the global. The writer’s words explore not just a main character, but the human condiRalph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedtion. A plot line leaves the reader with life lessons; a heart line nudges the reader toward the same wisdom that the character wins.

Do we need writers? Emerson says yes! Writers interpret this crazy world and add to our communal understanding. Memoir writers, especially, come to mind when Emerson says,

“[H]e will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer.”

As readers we find ourselves not only transported to interesting times and places with great books, but spoken to on a deep level. We leave the page with expanded self-knowledge. Emerson and I haven’t read all the same books, but he describes my feeling upon finishing a good book exactly:

We are persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods.”

Gods? This is heady stuff, and I don’t think about it when I’m in my sandbox of sentences. Or when I’m immersed in a scene. In fact, it’s only right that I’m unaware, at that stage, of what larger purpose the story serves or what insights a reader will take away. But when I emerge from the workshop, I do look for validation — not that every word I write is good (would that it were so!) — but that the very act of writing serves a purpose.

When I’m wondering if writing takes too much time from my parenting, my teaching, or even leisure activities (What are those?!), I go back to Emerson. He reminds every writer,

This is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee.”

The meaning here is two-fold: that real things/situations/objects will yield up their ideal underpinnings/patterns/souls and that ideals/insights/truths will manifest through the writing. If true, our writing time is time is well spent.

Interested in exploring Emerson’s “The Poet” more? Check out my video here: SixMinuteScholar video on “The Poet,” part 1 and find the text here: “The Poet” text by Emerson

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