You wouldn’t know it from my current curmudgeonly outlook, but I was not a particularly shy kid. To hear my family tell it, I could have held a conversation with a brick wall as long as it nodded in the right places. I had this deep-seated need to make friends and be liked. I wanted to meet everyone and talk their ears off.
A not-so-secret identity
You can imagine my delight when I was enrolled in a Spanish immersion elementary school program. I wasn’t thinking about whether it would be hard, or how it would affect my future. From my five-year-old perspective, I just doubled the number of friends I could find.
And boy, did I. Armed with my newly-acquired language skills, I set upon the unsuspecting Spanish-speaking population of Indianapolis. Tiny, caucasian, and shockingly blond, I ambushed person after person with questions and stories.
Their bewilderment only fueled my linguistic rampage. “Who was this little gringo kid, and how does he know Spanish?” they’d ask themselves as I chattered my way through restaurants, cafes and storefronts. I was as unstoppable as they were amused, and Spanish was my superpower.
The origin story
I was fortunate enough to continue my Spanish education through high school, thanks to the same immersion program. Fueled by the surprise and delight of the Indianapolis hispanic population, I made my way into the world of Spanish higher education. My Spanish-speaking curriculum opened doors that led me to study in Spain at the university level.
I was in Rome when I first realized how important my Spanish could be to other people. I was watching a soccer game in a hostel, and a man from Argentina approached me. His face lit up as he realized we shared a language. All of a sudden, it was like he couldn’t wait to tell me his life story.
It had been a while since I’d met someone who was so excited to learn that I – still blond and caucasian, but with more facial hair – could speak Spanish. I’d almost forgotten that look of surprise.
What stuck with me were the man’s expressions of delight and relief. You see, neither of us spoke Italian. What could have been a boring night became an enjoyable evening spent making a new, unlikely friend. Spanish was our superpower.
The power to make change
Back home in the United States, I knew I had to use this power for good. There are a lot of jobs that need Spanish speakers, and a lot of people who need support. I have taken more than a few jobs so that I could help people this way: medical interpreter, ESL teacher, community college prof, etc.
The reactions I get from Spanish speakers are still sometimes humorous, but more often humbling.
You would be amazed by how difficult life can be when you don’t speak the de facto language in a new country. Here in the US, things as routine as leaving a message over the phone, or making an appointment, are pretty hard to do without knowing English.
Being able to cross language barriers has taught me that everyone appreciates being included, but what’s maybe more important is how it feels when you’re not.
Having access to someone who speaks your language is such a game-changer. A lot of the folks I’ve worked with were so thankful to finally understand what was going on, that it really does make speaking Spanish feel like a superpower.