I’m not particularly pale or blonde or British, there's nothing about me that would lead one to believe I’m not Hispanic, but my ethnicity doesn’t immediately register with strangers. I grew up in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and attended questionable public schools my entire life, so I thought surely one of these things would betray the fact that my native tongue is, in fact, Spanish. It isn’t until someone overhears me talking to my parents that my undercover status as a Latina is exposed.
“You don’t speak to your parents in English?” they’ll ask. I nod no and mumble something about being more comfortable speaking to them in Spanish. The truth us, I can’t speak to them in English. I hate to disappoint the millions of acculturated Latinos and Yankophiles, but neither one of my parents speaks English. After immigrating to the United States from Cuba 36 years ago, the first phrase you’ll always hear them say to someone new is, "Do you espeak espanish?"Related from Vivala: Eva Longoria and 10 Other Latinos Who Don't Speak Spanish
What this meant for me as an only child was that no one was around to help with schoolwork. When I tested as gifted in kindergarten, I had to ask the woman administering the verbal portion of the exam whether I’d be allowed to answer questions in Spanish. Ironically, the only question I needed help with was “Who discovered America?” I paused and shyly whispered, “Cristobal Colon.” Five-year-old me was in full support of the Spanish colonization in the Americas and partly wished the entire country still operated in Castilian.
My dad moved to Costa Rica two decades ago so the fact that he doesn't speak English is a moot point these days, but that wasn’t
always the case. My dad likes to tell the story of me as a famished four-year-old, attempting to order “fried potatoes” at the McDonald’s drive-thru window. He’d
taken me to work with him and had forgotten to feed me, but his intolerance for
the fast-food employees meant I had to do the ordering if I wanted to eat something.
I succeeded (helping my dad dodge a visit from child services that day) and was too young and hungry to feel embarrassed for not knowing how to
say “french fries.”
Conversations with my mom sometimes feel like the “Parents” episode of Master of None, in which Aziz Ansari’s father requests his technical support. In her defense, my mom is actually more tech-savvy than I am, but she still needs help with things like signing up for car insurance online when Google doesn’t properly translate the webpage or reading correspondence from an "investor" offering her cash for her property. Junk mail notwithstanding, my mom has managed, even thrived, as a business owner and entrepreneur in the U.S. without speaking more than a handful of English phrases she’s picked up over the years for reasons of politeness. She has impeccable manners, and “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” are part of her vernacular.
What she can't quite grasp to this day, though, is exactly what I do for a living. From the first article I ever had published, when I interned for a quirky, pocket-size city magazine in college, to my work-related Snapchats, which she unapologetically screenshots, my mom has cataloged every piece of writing I’ve ever created — preserving it all while reading distorted versions of them haphazardly translated by Google. Still, she has laser focus when it comes to finding my byline, and almost seems disappointed when my name doesn’t appear beneath a headline. Reading my name in the masthead makes her happy (“Editor in Chief? What does that mean?”), but it’s not nearly as thrilling as seeing my picture in the contributors section of a publication. Her excitement and unconditional support never get lost in translation.