My personal bilingual journey
I have flashbacks of being at the airport in the Aurora Airport in Guatemala City at 5 years, old not fulling understanding the heaviness of what was going on around me. The adults in my family embraced and cried, as we said goodbye for what was meant to be two years in Houston while my dad trained as a specialist in pulmonary medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
I remember looking at my aunts, and saying, “ Voy a regresar hablando ingles y rubia con ojos azules.” I’m my young mind, learning a language meant that I would also trade in my physical appearance to match my perception of American culture. I explained that I would come back speaking English, and blonde haired and blue eyed. They chuckled at my perception, but probably understood that I would come back with some adopted Americanized views.
We moved to Houston in August, and that same month I began kindergarten in a public school. Unlike many immigrants coming to Houston, my parents were bilingual and educated. Mrs. Strickland werlcomed me and my family into her classroom, and was patient about my language development and curious about my culture.
My parents implemented a situational bilingual model. At home, we spoke Spanish and in school and out and about we spoke English. They always made sure that we remembered the importance of speaking Spanish, as well as learning English. I have a very vivid memory of a teacher coming to reprimand my brother and me on the playground for speaking Spanish. My brother followed behind me in school by a year, and he was still not comfortable as a kindergartener. My mom found out about the recess incident, and made it very clear that we needed to remember that being bilingual was a gift, and apologized that the teacher didn’t see it this way.
Needless to say, my brothers and all were completely fluent within a year, and quickly our preferred language of play became English. My parents didn’t try to dissuade this, but continued to hold us to the expectation that at home we spoke Spanish to them. Two years turned into 35 years. My parents carved out a comfortable bicultural life for us in Southwest Houston. It was a life flavored with cultures from all over Latin America, and we were also blessed with family coming through for months at a time from Guatemala. There was definitely a time in our lives, when we lived in an Anglo world, and were embarrassed by our Guatemalan heritage, and speaking Spanish, but I am so glad that my parents held their ground. My brothers and I are all still perfectly bilingual, and living in Houston.
This brings me to present day Houston. My husband and I are still in the battle to raise our kids bilingually in Houston. I have made my living educating kids in schools as a bilingual educator, an international school teacher, and now as a business owner of a Spanish immersion enrichment program. As a bilingual family, we have heard countless times about what a gift we are giving our kids.
For the first time this Spring, I’ve see an outward perception that speaking Spanish wasn’t something that was beneficial. I debated posting something that might be viewed as political, but I felt like it was worth mentioning the shift, so we can continue to support one another.
I was at a museum in Houston on a field trip with my kids, ages 10, 9, and 6. As is customary, I was explaining something to them in Spanish. I was startled when behind me a woman said, “You should really learn to speak English.” My gut reaction was raw, and I quickly snapped, “ I speak fine in English, thank you.” I saw her look of surprise and quickly walked away with the kids when I realized that she wasn’t alone, and I might have put us in an unsafe situation with my response.
As I write this, I still can’t believe that it happened. I have heard of a couple of instances like this happening around our country, and it saddens me, and makes me work harder at being sure my kids are proud of their cultures and languages. Yes, we are a bilingual and bicultural family.