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I’m American, and I’m multilingual. Why does it feel so scary to speak in another language in public?

Answering a call from mom in public suddenly takes on new — and nerve-racking — meaning.

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I wouldn’t say that my mom and I are very close. I’m gay.
She’s Mormon. There’s tension there. So for a long time she hasn’t called me much.
Slowly, things have been getting better, and she reaches out a bit more often.
A few months ago, I was on the streetcar in Portland and she called me.
This made me so happy. My mother is from Mexico. I grew up speaking Spanish. She and my father taught me to be proud of my heritage.
I recently went on a great trip to Mexico City with my husband. I felt confident and happy ... being able to show him around and translate when necessary.
That trip was so much easier because I speak Spanish.
I answered the phone. In Spanish. I said: “Mama.”
“Hola, Mama!”
Then I noticed
Someone on the streetcar looked at me funny. And I was scared.
I instantly thought of all those videos that go viral where some closed-minded person gets super angry because they heard a language that wasn’t English being spoken in their presence. This has always confused me.
I’ve lived all over Mexico, and if I hadn’t known Spanish, I would have felt very isolated.
When I was 19, I was a missionary for the Mormon church (don’t ask). But I was sent to a Spanish-speaking mission in the Bronx. There, my eyes and ears were alerted to the fact that Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Spanish are similar. But they all have their own beautiful nuances within their own dialects. If I didn’t have a base knowledge of Mexican Spanish, I would have been so lost.
Still, I’ve never understood when a Latinx person shames another for not knowing Spanish. Quite often they’re made to feel “less Latinx,” as if that’s even a thing.
There are some parts of the country where many languages are spoken. I could walk down the street in New York City and not hear English at all. I could hear Mandarin or Arabic or Italian, all together out on the world in one place.
I speak in Spanish to my mom. She speaks English, but for me it’s a sign of respect to speak to her in her native language. That, and I don’t have many opportunities in Portland to practice my Spanish.
When I got that look on the streetcar, I instantly wondered if there was suddenly going to be a scene. Someone yelling at me to “Speak English! Go back to where you came from!” I think about this a lot.
I think about what I’d say.
“First of all, I WAS born here and I can speak whatever language I WANT! I CHOOSE to speak to you in English right now because apparently it’s the only language you understand. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!“
In my opinion, hearing a language other than English only bothers people who feel small and jealous that they don’t know that language. It’s masking insecurity. It’s as simple as that.
These people might get mad hearing another language because they feel like “their” country is changing or that their lives will be harder to navigate with non-English speakers. But the United States doesn’t have an official language.
However, enslaved people brought over from Africa were forced to speak English by their captors. Native Americans were forced to attend schools that punished them for speaking their own language. This is nothing new.
And it continues today. Republican House members have repeatedly introduced legislation that would make English the official language of the United States. They claim it isn’t discriminatory and that it would help immigrants learn English.
In my mind, this preference for English is ignorant, racist, and classist. I remember thinking: “You can visit so many magical places if you know another language.“
English isn’t going anywhere...but what’s wrong with learning another language? “What a fine thing it is to understand two different languages!“ —The Marvelous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum
In the next 10 to 15 years, a quarter of this country will be Latinx. Imagine all the people you could meet, friends you could make, if you knew a little Spanish. Or any other language, for that matter!
That day on the streetcar, that woman didn’t say anything to me, but it made me think about how my mom is a Mexican woman living in Idaho. Neither of us should have to worry that someone is going to verbally assault us.
In short, don’t be intimidated. Learning a new language can be fun. What the world needs today is better efforts in communication and understanding. My Spanish isn’t perfect, but at least I try.
So next time you hear someone speaking another language, listen to the rhythm. Don’t be scared. Instead, be kind.
Because kindness is a language everyone can understand.

Terry Blas is the illustrator and writer behind the autobiographical comics “Ghetto Swirl,” “You Say Latino” and “You Say Latinx” Terry’s work has appeared in the comics Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, Adventure Time, and Rick and Morty. His first graphic novel, Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom, is a murder mystery set at a weight-loss camp. His second graphic novel, Hotel Dare, is an all-ages sci-fi/fantasy/adventure inspired by his childhood memories of Mexico.


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