My Secret Is This: I Speak Spanish (Or, How Language Sometimes Fails Me)

Any given bookshelf of mine brings together titles in English and in Spanish. It's the story of my life.

When I was in New York City, I treated myself to a manicure and a pedicure. I like to treat myself to pedicures from time to time (and if I’m going somewhere special, a manicure too). Pedicures are a time where I get to sit down, relax, and just zone out. I’m usually not chatty. The people who work at these places sometimes try to chat me up. But more often than not, I don’t talk much and they don’t either. I don’t try to be snooty; it’s just that it’s the one time of the day where I can sit back and not check my phone, not tweet, not email, not talk. I am peaceful.

I’ve noticed at most nail salons that the manicurists/pedicurists will talk to each other. If they all share a language other than English, oftentimes they will chat among themselves, and switch effortlessly when they want to address the person in the chair (me). It fascinates me how there are complete conversations going on in front of me; I become a spectator, but one that doesn’t know the plot. I don’t feel frustration at not knowing, just amazement. I enjoy listening to these exchanges because they are secret exchanges. Their thoughts, problems, jokes, are kept from me. I know, because I do it too.

As a bilingual person and a habitual code-switcher, I have been flipping back and forth between the English channel and the Spanish channel in my brain for as long as I can remember. While I lived in Puerto Rico, I remember using English in public when I wanted to discuss with my parents or siblings something I wanted to keep among us. This is problematic, of course: there are plenty of people who understand English in Puerto Rico. But I felt safe hiding behind my English, especially if I was code-switching. (Code-switching, from what I’ve heard, is hard to follow even if you know both languages.) When I moved back to the United States, I started using Spanish to conceal my thoughts and observations from the ones around me. I didn’t feel like I was in danger, although there is a small Spanish-speaking population up there. I remember when I moved to Kansas City being surprised at hearing Spanish around me; it was as if I had been caught red-handed thinking out loud.

So I always delight when I witness these exchanges at the salon. I know what they’re doing, even if I don’t know what they’re hiding. However, when I was in New York City, I gasped silently when I overheard the manicurists speaking in Spanish. All of a sudden I felt like I was listening to a conversation I wasn’t supposed to listen to. I sat in my comfy recliner and talked on the phone with my boyfriend (the first moment I had in days by myself) and while I spoke in English I felt odd. I felt like a traitor: here I was, speaking in English, and hiding my Spanish from the woman in front of me. When she addressed me in English I didn’t know if I should speak to her in Spanish; I felt like revealing that to her would break that wall she had from the customers. What would be their reaction if they heard me speaking Spanish? Would they stay quiet? Would they warm up to me? Would they be offended? So I stuck to English.

However, it didn’t feel right to my brain that I wasn’t talking to them in Spanish. My English was brief, stunted. I wasn’t supposed to be speaking in English to them, my brain seemed to say. I reacted the same way I react when I’m talking to someone in Spanish and all of a sudden someone addresses me in English: slow. But I didn’t feel like I could speak Spanish to them. Was it because I was a customer and they were providing a service to me? Did my language problems also reflect class issues?

As my manicurist massaged my hands before the nail polish, the young girl fresh out of college who was sitting next to me (I eavesdropped on her and her friend in English) got up to sit next to her friend and put with her hands under the nail dryer. When they were gone, the manicurist next to us told my manicurist,

“No me dejó propina.” (She didn’t leave me a tip.)

“¿Cómo?” (What?)

“Que no dejó propina ésta.” (This girl didn’t leave me a tip.)

My manicurist mumbled something, and the other one smirked while she put away her tools. I was upset that this had happened, and I wondered what their race/ethnicity had to do with the girl’s rudeness. Would she have left a tip if they had spoken to each other in English?

Weeks later, I’m still trying to figure out my feelings about the whole event. They were using Spanish as I had on so many occasions in the past since I arrived in the States. How many times have I switched to Spanish on purpose? If I’m talking on my phone in public, I don’t hesitate to speak my mind if I’m speaking in Spanish to family or friends. It’s a way to keep things private in public. I suspect the women at the salon used Spanish in that way. But it’s also one of their languages, maybe even their acquired language. (Who am I to say English is not their first language?) Language is something we had in common, and I usually relish the chance to talk to people in Spanish. I’ve done it before–just two weeks ago it happened in Kansas City at a Mexican restaurant; my server figured out I was Latina because of the way I said “quesadilla,” which led to the discovery that we were both from Puerto Rico. This time, I clearly hesitated. Why did I feel like a phony when I spoke in English? Perhaps because I used English with them when I could have spoken Spanish.

I may be bilingual, but my languages sometimes fail me.

Bonus track: Joe Cuba, “Bang Bang.’ Code-switching with a beat

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  1. Lee Skallerup Bessette says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. Growing up speaking both English (language 1a) and French (language 1b) was fun, but I was in a largely English-speaking milieu. When I went to a French university, I immediately was identified as an outsider, even though I grew up speaking the language. I just came back from Montreal and it’s hard for me to slip out of the mindframe. I still expect to walk into stores, overhear conversations, be greeted in French. Alas, there’s not much French in rural eastern Kentucky.

    I speak French to my husband when we’re trying to communicate without our kids knowing. It drives my daughter to distraction. She yells at us to stop speaking French so that she can understand what we’re saying.

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