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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Why And When We Speak Spanish Among Ourselves In Public
by Myriam Marquez
June 28, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.
It's a matter of respect.
When I'm shopping with my mother or standing in line with my
stepdad to order fast food or anywhere else we might be together,
we're going to speak to one another in Spanish.
That may appear rude to those who don't understand Spanish
and overhear us in public places, such as shopping centers, restaurants,
the driver's license office.
Those around us may get the impression that we're talking about
them. They may wonder why we would insist on speaking in a foreign
tongue, especially if they knew that my family has lived in the
United States for 40 years and that my parents do understand English
and speak it, albeit with difficulty and a heavy accent.
Let me explain why we haven't adopted English as our official
For me and most of the bilingual people I know, it's a matter
of respect for our parents and comfort in our cultural roots.
It's not meant to be rude to others. It's not meant to alienate
anyone or to "Balkanize" America.
It's certainly not meant to be un-American -- what constitutes
an "American" being defined by English speakers
from North America.
Being an American, to those of us who dare to speak
Spanish among ourselves in public, has very little to do with
what language we use during our free time in a free country. From
its inception, this country was careful not to promote a government-mandated
We understand that English is the common language of this country
and the one most often heard in international-business circles
from Peru to Norway. We know that, to get ahead here, one must
But that ought not mean that somehow we must stop speaking
in our native tongue whenever we're in a public area, as if we
were ashamed of who we are, where we're from. As if talking in
Spanish -- or any other language, for that matter -- is some sort
of litmus test used to gauge American patriotism.
Throughout this nation's history, most immigrants -- whether
from Poland or Finland or Italy or wherever else -- kept their
language through the first generation and, often, the second.
I suspect that they spoke among themselves in their native
tongue -- in public. Pennsylvania even provided voting ballots
written in German during much of the 1800s for those who weren't
fluent in English.
In this century, Latin American immigrants and others, such
as Puerto Ricans whose U.S. citizenship is automatic by nature
of that island's commonwealth status, have fought for this country
in U.S.-led wars. They have participated fully in this nation's
democracy by voting, holding political office and paying taxes.
And they have watched their children and grandchildren become
so "American" that they resist speaking in Spanish.
You know what's rude?
When there are two or more people who are bilingual and another
person who speaks only English and the bilingual folks all of
a sudden start speaking Spanish, which effectively leaves out
the English-only speaker. I don't tolerate that.
One thing's for sure. If I'm ever in a public place with my
mom or dad and bump into an acquaintance who doesn't speak Spanish,
I will switch to English and introduce that person to my parents.
They will respond in English, and do so with respect.