I recently completed a month long language immersion course in Spain. During this time, I took grammar courses in the morning and conversation lessons in the afternoon, and all in between was surrounded by Spanish wherever I went.
It was amazing - although also very sad.
Although I am semi-fluent in Spanish, I had decided to take lessons because, up to this point, I had never really formally taken any Spanish lessons at all. My Spanish was learned in the home, as I cooked and cleaned, made the beds for my brothers and watched novelas with my mother. My Spanish was created in the home, meant only for the home, and for the never outside. As a result, although I can understand and even speak a fair bit of Spanish, my knowledge of grammar is abysmal. To help with this, I have started to read Spanish novels, and while I was in Barcelona I bought a stack of books on gender violence during the Franco regime. However, reading these texts has been difficult as I can sense a clear drop in my IQ when I switch from English to Spanish.
How has this occurred? In the course of less than a generation, Spanish has quickly been replaced by English in much of my familial circles, so that by the time my children have children, Spanish probably won't be spoken anymore. I feel so guilty.
But is this guilt all mine? For a very long time, I used to be intensely angry with my mother - why didn't you speak to me in Spanish? (SHE DID), why didn't you insist that I answer you in Spanish? (SHE TRIED). It is only now that I realize how deeply unfair it was of me to hold her supremely responsible for the effects of forced colonization. The fact is, when she migrated, she had had limited access to school in Spanish in Puerto Rico, and when she was sent to New York, she spoke no English at all. The fact that she still held onto her native language, and spoke it to me frequently in the home, is a gift I was bestowed. The real crime was the incessant monolingualism that literally smothered me all those early years.
In other words, my mother was not responsible for the lack of quality bilingual programs in NYC in the 1970s. My mother was not responsible for her own lack of formal schooling in Spanish. My mother was just not responsible,
Once I accepted that my mother was not to blame, I have now taken on the task of trying to learn but learning a language that you already know is hard. At times it makes me feel stupid, but more often it makes me feel mournful. The irony of going to Spain to learn Spanish also does not escape me. I went to Spain to learn Spanish after living in the U.S. where I was not taught Spanish. And so I alternate between one colonizer (the U.S.) and another (Spain). Like someone who has endured years of violence, I am left wondering where do I belong - and perhaps it really was all my fault?
But I know that it is not. Much of the work that I am doing for the grant, eg taking language classes, reading about domestic violence, is helping me understand just that. How I need to extend grace to myself, how i need to understand that my mother was not responsible, and how to some extent, my father too was a victim of violence.