It took me a week into the Miami program to realize I was the only person who didn’t know Spanish. Everyone else, from native speakers to long-time students, had some sort of background. Of course, I’d expected to be at a disadvantage from the beginning; I knew the culture of Miami was closely tied with language. But I felt some comfort knowing I wouldn’t be alone coming into this summer without access to such a key aspect of the local culture. Learning this was not the case was, as you can imagine, daunting.
It didn’t take long for me to see this at my placement. It’s most obvious in the type of work I do, more so involving secretarial tasks and less so interacting with clients or doing intakes. Beyond that, I feel it in the moments when conversation naturally dips into Spanish, as the rest of the office speaks it conversationally if not fluently. As a result of my inability to participate, I have been labeled as “quiet”. Most recently, we visited the Krome Service Processing Center, a detention facility, where we accompanied an attorney who presented on legal options available to detainees with criminal offenses. After the hour-long drive and security check, I sat down with the others to observe the presentation. What followed was two hours of being completely out of my depth. As the men in the room sat listening to the information being presented in Spanish, often asking questions and making jokes. I just watched, clueless, with only the occasional translation the other interns were nice enough to whisper to me.
This isn’t an unfamiliar experience. Though I lived in India as a child, I wouldn’t call myself comfortable with Telugu and I’ve struggled to keep up when visiting – not to mention that I don’t know a lick of Hindi. When there, the expectation is that I speak the language. I am an outsider because I can’t, even among my own relatives and friends of the family, people who go out of their way to accommodate me.
It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s a reality that I am privileged to avoid in my daily life.
This is the experience of so many of the people that CCLS aims to help, and so many more throughout the US. This is the experience of my own parents, even with twenty years in the US under their belt. I wonder how it must feel, every time my sister or I correct their English. How it must feel, for us to insist our conversations be in English because we’re both more comfortable with it. How it must feel to have to live your life in your second, third, or even fourth language. Especially when you’re doing so for the sake of those around you, unwilling to budge but expecting you to do exactly that.
One promise I made early this summer was to take the leap outside of my comfort zone. Instead, I’ve been pushed out. It’s been difficult, but I’m appreciative of that. I, of course, still don’t know Spanish. I struggle interacting with clients or coming to terms with the fact that I may not be as helpful as the other interns. It’s frustrating that every time I get excited for recognizing a stray word or phrase, I know it’s a minuscule fraction of what I would need to know to not just see Miami, but to be a part of it. But that frustration is important in order to understand, and I feel like I’ve come a long way in beginning to understand.