It’s the most common question I’ve gotten this summer. Around Miami, I stick out like a sore thumb–blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin. Here in the Capital of Latin America, speaking Spanish is practically a requirement; about a third of the population speaks Spanish and little-to-no English. From our days in the mobile home parks and throughout the city, nobody has ever looked at me and assumed that I speak Spanish.
I’ve studied Spanish for technically 12 years, but only seriously for maybe 6 (and I picked up most of the curse words from hispanohablante friends at summer camp). A big part of my motivation for spending my summer with DukeEngage-Miami was that I would get to use my Spanish like never before. But honestly I don’t think I was prepared for immersion in the linguistic culture of Miami.
Everywhere I go, Spanish and English are heard in perfect complement, as if they were a single language–it’s seamless Spanglish that you don’t normally hear every day. Nothing has tested my language ability like trying to interact with strangers who are flipping back and forth between my two languages. I’ve taken the classes, read the articles, and even written a research paper or two in Spanish, but I’ve never had an immersive Spanish experience. Here in Miami, my Spanish knowledge has come in handy nearly every day (even for just eavesdropping). In the mobile home parks we visit, almost all the residents we interview are Spanish speakers, so it’s fortunate that we have José because he can fluently run through the survey with them. Fiona, on the other hand, has picked up the tiniest bit of beginner’s Spanish from Duolingo, so I have defaulted to being her interpreter for these interactions. Our participants are always surprised to see that I’m laughing at what they say, or responding to their questions, because I don’t look like I’m supposed to know Spanish. Just this week, we were interviewing a large group of residents in one of the parks and I had to take over for José in one of his Spanish interviews because someone else had to ask him something, and when I asked a question in Spanish, one of the others remarked, “¿El ruso habla español?”
Ruso. I didn’t recognize that word at first, so I just laughed it off because I generally understood what she was saying and didn’t want to bother clarifying because I had to continue the interview. When José jumped back in and I was no longer occupied, the same woman kept repeating that word and looking straight at me. Ruso. Ruso. Ruso. And then it clicked: she was calling me Russian. I honestly laughed because I was caught off guard. In Spanish, it’s common to refer to people you don’t know with simple adjectives: rubio is blond, blanco is white, joven is young; but this was truly a first. Of course, if I were a Russian in one of these parks, that would be a pretty remarkable occurrence, made even more remarkable by my Spanish ability. But this new title was a term of comical affection and the group continued to joke about it while we finished the interviews. Even though I so clearly stick out, my ability to speak the culturally dominant language allows me to participate in the conversations and culture of the residents in these parks.
Even after studying Spanish for a number of years and living in Miami for the last four weeks , I’m still pretty self-conscious about my ability to speak Spanish out loud. I know when I speak I sound like a gringo. But this anxiety hasn’t stopped me from listening to and understanding what people are saying, nor from interpreting for Fiona or other non-Spanish speakers. Just this past Thursday, we were up north at a mobile home after work to do some overtime assistance with a settlement agreement and I had one of my most bizarre encounters to date. There have been times that I have struggled to understand some people here because of their different Latin American accents, but I was understanding this one woman’s words particularly well, even though her overall meaning was totally lost on me. She made several different comments about me and my eyes and my hair that didn’t make too much sense to me. Meanwhile, my supervisor was sitting next to me and just shaking her head. As the woman was leaving, she pulled out her purse, pointed into it, looked right at me and smiled, and said, “Dame tus ojitos.” Give me your eyes. And then it all made sense; this woman had been flirting with me for about 5 minutes while she was signing a bunch of paperwork. I honestly didn’t know how to respond, but luckily everyone else around was laughing and responding for me.
I’ve been really nervous that my Spanish ability isn’t enough to be able to survive or get by here in Miami, but now I’m feeling much more confident. If I can understand when an elderly woman is trying to hit on me, then I can confidently tell all those who ask, “Yes, I do speak Spanish.”