When I was eight-years-old, my dad decided that we were all going to speak English and only English in the house. I did not think much about this until recent years when I began reflecting on identity, culture, and race as one does during that classic college “awakening.” Frustrated by my limited capacity to communicate in Bengali, which translated into an inability to have meaningful dialogue with any of my extended family members, I decided to confront him about this decision. Originally, I was convinced that the switch to English was made to improve my dad’s American accent – a step to bring him a little bit closer to that all-American (read: white) ideal. After much pestering and nagging on my end, my dad finally revealed his true motive for making the switch: I was the one beginning to develop an accent.
Having picked up Bengali years before English, my English was contoured by my Otherness. As an immigrant and outsider himself, my father knew that my place in this country, my ability to belong, was highly contingent on my developing that annoying, twangy take on the colonizer’s language i.e. the American accent. The American Dream, after all, means sacrifice. So he let the barrier between myself and my blood grow thicker, as together we learned more and more how to fade into the background of white picket fences.
But that was then and this is now. More specifically, that was Wichita, Kansas circa 2006, and this is Miami 2017. Miami pretty much took everything I knew about America and turned it upside down. My valley-girl accent and perfect American English is useless-adjacent here. Having no knowledge of the Spanish language whatsoever, I am unable to communicate with many if not most of those around me. I can’t push the button for the person who gets in after me in the elevator. I can’t make small talk as my good old Midwestern upbringing had taught me to. When I was making calls at work, the conversations usually didn’t go smoothly with my nonexistent Spanish skills and my bizarre bourgeoise-crafted accent to blame. At any given time, I can hear Spanish words flowing around me, sometimes directed at me, and sometimes not, but always present and perpetually incomprehensible.
And I think it’s absolutely fantastic.
Let me be clear: my admiration does not stem from any exoticized essentialization of Spanish (which is also colonial language, but let’s not go there for today) or Spanish-speaking communities. I am in admiration because, after spending years rejecting and suppressing my own cultural heritage, I find it amazing to see communities that have been able to retain a firm grasp on their collective identities. Despite the forces of institutionalized racism, conservative nationalism, xenophobia, people in Miami do what people have always done: live, create, and come together. They have created community for themselves, chosen to support one another, and put in the labor to build together. They create families, art, community centers, neighborhoods, cultural festivals. And when someone like me walks in, I am firmly an outsider because this city has an identity that I cannot co-opt, that my precious American accent cannot grant me immediate and full access to.
However, my appreciation for these communities’ resilience is not meant to brush over the real issues faced by people in Miami. The clients we see everyday are here because they don’t anywhere else to turn to. Our organization exists because our state refuses to give all people the right to free legal counsel. These cases exist because our government is happy to exploit, bomb, and destabilize nations all over the world including and perhaps especially those in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean, but unwilling to take responsibility for the effects of its devastation including migration. Wealth like everywhere else in America (and in the world), definitively has a race and a color. Developers and businesses are happy to sell Miami’s “rich” and “vibrant” cultural heritage, while gentrifying the neighborhoods of the very people who make Miami so “rich” culturally and otherwise. Keeping this all in mind, I still cannot help but be in awe that the kind of community and collective identity-making I’ve seen in Miami actually exists in Amerikkka.