By Elizabeth Hernandez, Spanish tutor at Spanish Blackbelt Language School, Baltimore, MD.
As a child, I always thought of my life being the same as the life of any other child growing up in America. I attended school, spent time with my family and a few friends, and enjoyed playing outside and watching Saturday morning cartoons. It wasn’t until I grew up and moved from Miami, Fl. to Columbia, Md. that I began to realize how my upbringing was indeed quite different than that of most of my American friends.
My family had migrated to Spain and then Miami after fleeing the communist regime in Cuba in the seventies. We were a small family and had to work hard for everything we had. My parents were usually working and I was raised mainly by my grandparents; neither of them spoke a word of English, so naturally I didn’t either. It wasn’t until I began attending elementary school that I began to learn to speak English.
My school was a bilingual school, my mother was very adamant about me properly speaking both Spanish and English fluently. In my class, there was only one or two black and white students, everyone else was Hispanic. I would say 50% of the students and faculty were Cuban and 50% were South American. Our choir presentations were often comprised of songs such as “De Colores” and our school dances on Wednesdays in the cafeteria usually consisted of many chaperones separating 5th graders grinding to Miami Bass and Booty Music (Something unheard of to my Md. friends)! Oh yes, 2 Live Crew, Tag Team, and Vanilla Ice were among the popular favorites for your average elementary school student in Miami. Needless to say, parents did not fully approve of these dances and they were soon after discontinued.
At home, my family was very overprotective of me and my brother and made sure we were supervised by an adult at ALL times. Everyday after school the bus would drop us off at my grandparent’s house until my mom got off of work and took us home (which was a five minute or less drive away). My grandparents would do their best to ensure that we did our homework, bathed and ate before my mom arrived to pick us up. We would usually have a snack like some butter crackers with guava and cream cheese, or a papa rellena that my grandfather would make from scratch by the dozens to sell at his friend’s cafeteria and our favorite beverage was Tang! A very sugary orange flavored powder that only needed water added to be enjoyed! It was rare to have dinner without rice and black beans, my grandma would often make bistec empanizado, ropa vieja which I would call ropa sucia on accident, (a shredded beef dish called “old clothes”, I’d call it dirty clothes) tostones, or platanos maduros, and of course ensalada de aguacate. When moving to Md. I realized there were a lot of dishes that were not as common for us to have regularly or ever such as stroganoffs, pot roasts, or even hot dogs. Hot dogs were usually saved for grilling or BBQ’s which my grandparents and most of my family even the kids, would pronounce “bab- bee- qyou”.
As far as the language was concerned we spoke a combination of Spanish and English growing up, also known as Spanglish! Often times the majority of a sentence would be in English with a few Spanish words here and there. It was the same way if the sentence was mainly in Spanish, you would hear an English word every so often. Something that was also very common was saying an English word with a Spanish accent, which was often the case with my grandparents. For example, “Happy Birthday” was always sung in English but with a very Spanish Accent! It was more like “Happy Berday”. We never referred to cake as “torta’ or “pastel”, instead it was “kay”. My cousins and friends also spoke the same way; it was how we spoke not only within our family but also among friends. Even to this very day it is my favorite form of communication. I feel this is probably very common for people who were born in the U.S. and have Hispanic parents. I imagine it is probably annoying to those trying to learn Spanish or English however. If your goal is to learn Spanish you might have to remind us to stick to one language at a time! My advice to those trying to learn Spanish is to use it at every opportunity that arises. If you are ordering food somewhere and notice that the employees are Hispanic, don’t be afraid to sound silly, just go for it! They will be happy to see that you are making an effort to communicate with them in their native language even though they are the visitors or foreigners in your native country.
There are more pros than cons to being raised in an environment as I was. The cons being that Hispanics born in their native countries view me as American, and Americans view me as Hispanic, I am ok with this, but I can see how this might cause some sort of identity issues in others! But you can also see this as a blessing and being able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Knowing two languages is definitely a pro and can only help and benefit you in life. Overall I am very proud to be part of this minority of people who can relate so much to two cultures. I am grateful to have been raised the way I was and by the people who did and would never wish it was any different. I encourage everyone to learn about another culture aside from your own, learn a language new to you, and enjoy and appreciate the things that make us different from one another.