From the outside I looked like a carefree shopper, arriving at Idlewild Books last summer to peruse its memoirs and guidebooks, iced tea in hand. But my real business was in the back, where two classrooms were letting out and new sessions were about to start. I was jittery, trying to tune out the racing backbeat of my heart. I ran my fingertips over an adventure tale showing daredevils hanging from a cliff face. These guys fearlessly climbed Everest, I thought. Surely I can summon the courage to scale the Spanish language again.
I’d grown up speaking buen castellano, bouncing between North and South America. In my early childhood my family lived in Seattle, then moved to Chile (where my mother’s relatives were), and then back to Seattle, all before I was 8 years old. Once we resettled in the US, my Spanish became warped and weak. Now, like many second-generation kids, my Spanish is a wonky, lopsided thing.
Language comprehension is often thought of as a ladder, where the bottom rung is “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.” One step up is “how much is this?” and “where is the bathroom?” The middle rungs are herky-jerky conversations about where you’re from and what your job is, and the top rung is fluency, an observation point where you can see as far as philosophical conversations about spirituality, politics, and business.
However, in practice I find my Spanish is more like Chutes and Ladders. Watch a telenovela on Netflix? Jump up five rungs. Avoid speaking it for a month? Slide back 12 squares. Land on the spot where you need to explain a medical condition? Tumble back to square one, flapping your hands to fill in missing words or falling back on English.
There are no “winners” because unlike a game, fluency doesn’t have a finish line. No triple-word score will get you to the end. You are forever bumping around the board. But there are plenty of “losers” — those who give up trying to learn altogether, which is where I was for quite some time. (Pour one out for the Duolingo owl.)
Throughout my life, I’ve made several scrambling attempts to level up my proficiency. There were the workbooks my mother would push on me in grade school (“El gato está encima de la mesa”), the translated edition of Harry Potter (“Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal”) I thumbed through along with copies of Teen Vogue, and the class I took as a college sophomore wherein I struggled through Federico García Lorca (“La poesía no quiere adeptos, quiere amantes”).
It was during the last attempt that my professor pulled me aside to tell me I would never improve. According to her, half-fluent native kids like me were linguistically askew, learning by ear, not by rote. We could speak melodically, but our foundations were uneven because they had never been leveled out by stacks of grammar rulebooks. You can’t ascend a ladder that’s propped on a warped floor without falling.
As an adult, I packed away my Spanish in deep storage, busting it out only on the rare occasions when I traveled or saw family. Still, I got frustrated and defensive when the subject would come up, citing arguments I’d read on the site Remezcla about how language doesn’t define your Latinidad. I would parade around the names of famed Latinx people who didn’t speak Spanish fluently. “See?” I’d shout to my mom, my coworkers, the supermarket checkout lady, “Selena Gomez is the poster girl for Latino achievement, and her Spanish is almost nada!”
All this was before the 2016 presidential election.
After that, words en español became a tripwire that set off some ugly confrontations. I’m reminded of viral videos in which restaurant employees or JC Penney shoppers speaking Spanish to each other are terrorized by hate speech from an onlooker. “Speak English!” or “Go back to where you came from!” are the usual refrain. It’s a climate of fear, of slogans about America that read as implicit threats, of “wait ’til Trump gets to you.”
I made a decision — I was heading back to the classroom. Learning my mother tongue was no longer a way to shore up my own shortcomings; it had transformed into an act of resistance. If they’re coming for the bilinguals, I thought grimly, they can come for me primero.
I’d heard about Idlewild from various friends who had picked out guidebooks or taken a class there. After spending an afternoon reading Yelp reviews from former students, I enrolled in its top-level Spanish class: Film and Conversation. It was described on Idlewild’s website as the “most advanced class, for those who can speak and understand at a high level.” I still felt the old trepidation around attending class and opening myself up to critique and embarrassment — the Latina who could falter on the basics, such as the correct pronoun.
My first class, I arrived 15 minutes early. After browsing the bookstore’s titles, I migrated to the back of the shop that held two windowed classrooms anchored by large rectangular tables. There I met my instructor, Juan Vallejo, a spectacled documentary filmmaker from Colombia. He explained the class structure to me: Every week we’d watch a Spanish-language movie, then come together to discuss it, read interviews with the directors, and review words used in the films.
“You can say if you liked the movie or not,” Juan explained, “but we’re extending our conversations más allá.” He gestured to some distant horizon line — that illusive lookout point of fluency.
Ah, yes, I thought with a sigh, my goal is always más allá. Sure enough, our first assignment was the Argentine film Medianeras (already a word of the day, meaning “sidewalls”) and our class conversation touched on psychotherapy, soul mates, and the recession in Argentina. Sometimes I felt like the star student, other times the class dunce, but I was welcomed as my wobbly linguistic self, hobbling around in circles with one leg in Spanish 101 and the other in Spanish 400.
There were four of us in total: Margaret, a steely, silver-haired globetrotter with a knowledge of Spanish cinema that rivaled that of our professor; Thomas, the Theodore Roosevelt of our gang, who spoke softly and carried a big cane; Addy, a mush-hearted romantic who could roll her Rs like a pro; and me, the Latina trying to retrace her steps back to her roots. For seven Fridays in a row, we strapped ourselves together in our ascent up Mount Español, trying to pull each other along. Not that we worked in harmony. We argued about love at first sight (a three-to-one split) and Catalan independence (a stalemate). But even our tug-of-wars provided opportunities to yank each other up to the next ledge.
I wish I could say that by the end of class, I’d ascended to the tippy-top of fluency. Not quite. I still fumbled through words written on the whiteboard and read slowly, occasionally sounding things out. As I said adios to my classmates and packed up my notepad and pen on our last session, Juan took me aside. My stomach dropped to my shoes. Here it comes. I thought. The moment where he tells me I’m a lost cause.
“Your Spanish is fine,” Juan said, nodding as if agreeing with himself. “Really. Just keep reading, and it’ll come along. Don’t give up.”
“I won’t,” I replied. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure. I wanted to improve, but I was also pretty tired of climbing.
Yet post-class, I found small ways to keep the lessons going, whether it was binge-watching Los Espookys or reading an Argentine fashion blog. Nothing I did created change on a larger scale; every day, the border wall went up, immigrant families got separated, DREAMers were threatened with deportation. But I was doing the one tiny thing in my control: removing the invisible “English only” sign from whatever space I occupied.
Three months after my last class ended, my husband and I went to Mexico City on vacation. Putting my Spanish to the test, I ordered churros, hailed taxis, and bought aguas frescas. I also went más allá in my conversations with locals, discussing LGBTQ rights, climate change, and the political strife in Chile. At the end of my week there, I hitched a ride to Valle de Bravo with a local. It was going to be a hilly drive, past several mountainous areas. As I loaded my suitcases in the trunk, I asked the driver about the route.
“Is there a pretty, scenic place to pull over and take photos?” I asked her. “A high point?”
She considered for a moment and replied, “The whole trip is scenic, if you keep your eyes open for the beauty along the way.”
Maria Teresa Hart is a travel editor and writer with work published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Teen Vogue.