Embracing my full identidad also empowers me to challenge you, the reader y preguntarle…what will you do now to ensure that this trabajo continues? (Dr. José Medina)
My experiences in this country have been mostly limited to Ohio and Vermont. That is my standard response to my family and friends when they ask me what it's like to be an immigrant in this Abenaki land these days.
Thanks to my university in Cuernavaca and thanks to my universidad back in Mexico, before the Buckeye State and the Green Mountain state, I was fortunate enough to take a semester abroad at a community college in Maryland in 2003. Memories and flashbacks of my trips to DC, Arlington, Alexandria, or being invited to the Power Plant Live in Baltimore are things that I fondly recall when I did not know how to speak English at all.
Still, as my new language, I quickly understood that English would be a bit more challenging with constant immersion and learning from slang and idioms than I had anticipated.
This is the first of many testimonios that has defined my career and my experience in the United States for good or bad.
Somebody told me that I should do this more, ¿neta? Are you telling me that I can escribir historias like these a lot more?
Without further ado, empezamos.
Cleveland Ohio, summer of 2006. There I was ready to meet with another grad student for a tutoring session in Spanish.
Many of you may be familiar with the picture: many tables outdoors, in a Starbucks, frappuccinos, iced lattes, triple cinnamon dolce latte, what?- Not for me, I’m a happy person when I have a triple shot espresso with a dash of cinnamon, that’s it. Even better if I had known about garam masala instead of canela molida. No sugar, no milk. Un cafecito expresso bien cargado.
Suddenly, I heard a loud voice behind me. A woman who looked visibly upset asked my student:
-Why are you doing this?
-Doing what? Responded my student with a tone of extrañeza.
The woman replied:
-You, speaking their language. Don’t you know this? This is America; we speak English!
My body language changed, and I looked at her; I was angry; why would she do that? Interrupting our tutoring session like that. I said to her.
-Please mind your own business.
She got irritated and yelled at me:
-You and your people steal our jobs, we pay taxes to support your welfare, you are ruining our country. Go back to Mexico!
I was not going to be silent. How dare she?
This was back in 2006. I was a recent M.A. graduate from Cleveland State University. I was in the middle of deciding if I ever wanted to pursue a career here or perhaps go for a Ph.D.
I already had an undergraduate degree, una licenciatura, for teaching Spanish as a second language at my institution (the one who sponsored me to have a semester abroad in Maryland)
I decided at that moment that I would not stay silent.
Armado de valor, and also with my hands starting to sweat, and with closed fists, I said to her:
-To the best of my knowledge, English is not the official language of the United States. As far as I know, it’s a lingua franca; I don’t remember reading anything that prohibited me from speaking my own language in a public space.
She then got up from her table, came closer to us, cursing some F-bombs at me, and con una puntería increíble dumped hot coffee in my shirt.
Yes, hot coffee en toda mi camisa blanca. Salpicado de café americano.
At that moment, that guy, the person who was supposed to be my student learning Spanish from me, simply left; he just walked away. Many people that day were watching, and they just were bystanders.
Se hicieron de la vista gorda.
No one said anything, this woman left the place, and I was there, in tears, mentándole la madre a esa cabrona, jija de su rechingada. What did just happen?
I’m sharing this testimonio because I recently shared this with my classes. They all agreed that it was a defining moment in my teaching career. Never have I ever used a traditional textbook or a CI book. Most of my teaching materials have been constantly connected, one way to another, to my own lived experiences as an immigrant.
I reminded my students that learning Spanish in the USA is a privilege to some and a curse to others. Not everyone agrees to say that being bilingual is a superpower.
To some, there is trauma and hardship behind many student’s bilingual, trilingual, or heritage learner’s situation. To others, speaking Spanish, depending on your racialized identity, is a sign of being educated.
Still, to individuals like me, it can be a sign of not being able to fit in in certain social circles, not feeling welcomed; we all have seen this not only with Spanish but with any other language spoken in a public setting.
Since that unfortunate experience, and after so many peaks and valleys in my teaching career, I’ve been fortunate enough to only work at two institutions: a catholic school in urban Cleveland and now, for the last 10 years, on a beautiful hilltop, at a progressive education boarding school, in the middle of nowhere, Vermont.
(Ya sé, the story sounds sad, but trust me! it can lead to starting some productive and necessary conversations, maybe?)
So, with that being said, let’s recap: what does it mean to be empowering students and all the identities present in your classes these days?
Sometimes, it all starts with a vulnerable testimonio, and listening to our students ’ lived experiences de una manera más intencional.