Language and Privilege

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The chapter “Snapshots from My Daze in School” by Celia Alvarez was extremely insightful, especially in the way that she analyzes language. She brings up the fact that she was privileged due to the fact that she was a bilingual speaker, and thus could serve as a translator (sharpening her interpersonal communication skills) for her mother, who spoke Spanish, yet still possess the capacity to speak English because of her father. So, she succeeded when she entered elementary school, but she states that this is only due to her English language skills since NYC public schools were not bilingual.

Now, I had a similar situation growing up. I was born in San Diego, where my parents were living in a tiny rental apartment. Living in a city so close to the Mexican border, my parents often spoke Spanish with their friends, at their jobs and in the house. But this was only for the first year of my life in which I was constantly surrounded by the hum of Spanish, because my parents relocated to New Jersey, so that my dad could be close to family living in the area and because of his acceptance into a PhD program at Rutgers. We moved into the bottom floor of a two-family house in Bayonne. My father’s aunts lived on the top floor, two middle-aged Irish-American women, who would find any excuse to come downstairs in order to play with the baby (me!) So, English became spoken more often than not, in order to accommodate my ever-present great aunts. Spanish was then reserved for bed-time lullabies, some of which I can still hum to myself. When my siblings were born, an unexpected set of fraternal twins, my dad’s mother came to live with us for a short period of time, seeing as how mi abuela in Mexico couldn’t just up and leave. So my grandma sung lullabies for me while my mother stayed up with the twins, so even bed-time got switched over to English. Soon, Spanish became a truly foreign language to me, which I could only re-conciliate through my own academic pursuits.

So, I never saw my lack of understanding Spanish as a privilege. I always thought that if I came from a bilingual household that I would have a much more prestigious education, perhaps even being able to focus on my third language right now instead of Spanish. But I now realize that not knowing Spanish was almost considered a privilege for me, especially considering that┬ámy sister was put in an ESL class just because they figured she couldn’t speak English because she was shy and the teacher saw that my mother (a visibly Latina woman) dropped her off at school on the first day of kindergarten. My strength in English is a huge privilege, even though I am often sad about having a very real disconnect from my culture due to many years of not being able to speak my mother’s native language.

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