At Home in Two Languages
My son didn’t know why he spoke two languages, he just knew that he did. His life had always been that way, and for him, that was home.
My son has been in his new elementary school for half a year, and he’s made it clear he prefers it. “I like this school better, Mami,” he says. I’ve tried to discover the exact reasons why. He’s told me it’s because they feed them breakfast and because they get extra time outside. But just the other day, he volunteered, “I like my school better because I understand both Spanish and English.”
As I repeat these words to myself now and reflect on what they mean to me, I feel a sense of acceptance and belonging. I grew up bilingual in Miami, and I remember how it felt: Everyone around me was like me – with parents from another country, and the ability to seamlessly switch between two languages. I didn’t feel unique or special, I just felt like everyone else.
From the day I left mi querido Miami, something new followed me around wherever I went. It began in college, where somewhere along the way I was labeled “Hispanic.” I didn’t really know if this was a positive or a negative label until someone said, “Oh, you got into Georgia Tech? It must be because you’re Latin.” And there it was: All my hard work, good grades, and determination to excel – it was all disregarded because I was a minority who got into college.
Although these words impacted my sense of self-worth, I didn’t allow them to destroy me. I did have fun in college and I embraced my new label, “Yes, I am Latina and proud of it.” I may have gotten into college because I am a Latina, but I graduated with honors because I worked hard.
Then came life after college, and I allowed my label to follow me, including it in all the paperwork that asked for my ethnicity: Hispanic. I checked it off proudly.
Soon I was off to NYC to start my professional life. Intimidated, I arrived for my first day of work and discovered no one was expecting me. I found my designated team area and there was only one woman sitting there. When I introduced myself, the woman asked, “Are you Latin?” I proudly said yes, to which she responded, “That’s probably why they hired you.”
There it was again, but this time it hurt. Was I not worthy of being there? Was I not good enough to get to this level without my label? And why were people trying to take something away from me that I had earned on my own?
Fast-forward to today. I’m now passing this label onto my son. I am proud to be Hispanic, and I know he will be, too, but there will also be hardships along the way. I sometimes wonder why I decided to bring this identity upon him.
I think back to last year – when he was not in a dual language program – when other children would innocently ask him, “Why do you speak a different language?” I remember how he would take a step back and look up at me, not knowing the answer. He didn’t know why he spoke two languages, he just knew that he did. His life had always been that way, and for him that was home, and part of what defined him. How did I respond? “Because I taught him. Do you know any other languages? Do you want me to teach you?”
This thing that makes my son “different” is something I gave to him with pride. And while I know that great things will come of it in the end, I also recognize it will create some challenges along the way.
For now, all I can do is embrace the positive, talk about the benefits, and show my son and daughter the advantages of knowing a second language. I can find environments where this difference is celebrated and shared. I can continue helping parents raise bilingual children, because being bilingual shouldn’t be a label that shames us, but a label that makes us stronger as a community.
Our dual language elementary school has done just that for my son – and for me. There, no one questions why my son speaks Spanish, because it’s simply part of the classroom experience and knowing a second language is an expectation for everyone. “We are all here to become bilingual.” It’s a place that feels like home.
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