I don’t speak Spanish.
I am a Mexican. Mexi-CAN. I love to dance to Tejano music. When Angie first came to my home to meet the family, she asked why everyone was yelling. I looked over at her and just said. “This is just how we talk.” I have inherited our people’s high value of family. I love my family, and cheer on each success like it is my own.
Still, I don’t speak Spanish.
This most Mexican of things is absent from my life. And it is when I leave the cold plains of Michigan do I remember what this means. Last week I headed to the Dominican Republic. I was leading a team from Flint City Church. We were supposed to go to Haiti, but due to civil unrest got rerouted to the other side of the island.
Now, if we had gone to Haiti, my lack of Spanish would not have been discovered. For the people in Haiti speak Creole or French. I could communicate poorly there and nobody would be disappointed in me. But the Dominican is a different story. Spanish is spoken in the DR.
It started happening while I was waiting for our plane to depart. Dominicans struggling with English would look in the crowd for a certain kind of person. They were looking for someone young and brown. Someone who knew Spanish but could navigate the ways of this American airport. They would come over to me and begin asking questions. Older women would take my wrist and beseech me for help. And I would smile a helpless smile and speak. As soon as they heard my voice and its lack of accent they knew I was no help. They would walk away confused and still lost.
What was I to do? I could hide. I could try to stand at the back of the crowd, or maybe stand close to the translators so when someone came they were always there to save me. I could always look down and never make eye contact, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the language I cannot speak. I could live in fear. That was an option.
But there is another way. I could try. I could butcher the language and laugh at my own inability and walk clumsily in conversation with all that I met. I could help the old lady in the airport and escort her to the right place. I could embrace what I was and wasn’t and begin to flex this muscle that was so weak.
Fear or faith. Hiding or foolishly trying. Shame or a shrug. Hoping the ball never gets hit to me, or learning how to catch that ball.
So I spoke. Badly and incorrectly. Butchering sentences and confusing native born speakers. But through the trying came friendships. And a fear that has held me since boyhood began to fade.
At the end of all things, I think reaching across the chasm of language, of personal history, of culture... I think it is worth the cost.