A Letter to the Man who Told me not to Speak Spanish in Public
After experiencing a moment of disbelieving paralysis, replaced by sadness, followed by frustration, and a great dose of wrath towards you and especially myself for not addressing you in the moment, all I feel now is pity. I honestly pity the depth of your ignorance.
When my colleague and I were walking towards the subway entrance in the heart of the Financial District, we were bonding over our favorite musicians in Spanish, minding our own business--with no intention to offend or bother you and your two white, male friends...because naturally, a racist xenophobe like you would only surround himself with people who look like him.
You see, sometimes only words in certain languages can most accurately describe and enliven the topic at hand. In our case, since my colleague and I were talking about Latin musicians, we had to authentically honor our roots, and therefore speak in our native tongue. Perhaps your monolingual, narrow mind inhibits you from seeing the limitations of having to rely on a single language to precisely communicate all your thoughts and feelings. That is the beauty of being bilingual, or trilingual, or even a polyglot: because we think in different languages, our minds are equipped to function rather quickly, transitioning from topic to topic smoothly. In fact, bilingualism can improve an individual’s ability to focus and perform mental tasks. Studies have found that bilingual children outperform children who speak only one language in problem-solving skills and creative thinking.
It baffles me that you condemn such an admirable skill in a pair of young women. Perhaps I should be flattered. Maybe your offense at my speaking Spanish on bustling New York City streets is an indication of envy or appreciation towards my motor skills, and those of my fellow immigrants; of the blessing it is to be exposed to, and embrace, two different cultures; of knowing a world beyond the boundaries of the United States; of having a history far richer than what is described in a single nation’s history textbook. And most importantly, of having a multi-layered--I dare say, more receptive-- perspective on life.
When you began to speak out loud in the direction of my friend and me--exerting your white, male privilege--I immediately blocked you out. I refused to listen to what you had to say. And that was my biggest mistake. As soon as I saw your mouth and arms open wide, I forced myself to ignore you completely, which is why the second half of your statement took me a second too long to register-- a second too long to put you in your place.
You yelled out, “I’m sorry but that is unacceptable!”
Identifying as a woman, my brain immediately began to imagine sexist, misogynist comments that were going to complete your statement: “‘it’s unacceptable’ for two beautiful women in skirts to be walking alone unaccompanied by a man;” a comment construed by men as “kind” and “innocent,” and not for what it truly is: cat-calling, or even more accurately, harassment. Women face street harassment all the time, even on a daily basis. A study conducted in 2014 found that sixty-five percent of all women have experienced street harassment. I myself have experienced verbal street harassment quite a few times, by much older men. It is not flattering. No matter how carefully men choose “pleasant” vocabulary or measure their tone of voice to be sweet, women walking on the street, attempting to get to their destination, are not objects for the male gaze--for male visual pleasure and conversational enjoyment. We just want to get to where we need to be, unbothered.
How miserable is it that because I assumed you were a misogynist (which you still probably are because you, a man, thought you had the power to tell me, a woman, what to do), I immediately feared for my safety, and chose to initially ignore the xenophobic comment that shortly followed your fantastic opening statement? That in itself is so problematic! I did not answer back to you and instead chose to ignore you because I feared retaliation. It was three of you against just two of us. I did not know if you would try to grab me, or follow me, or worse. Twenty-three percent of women have been sexually touched, twenty percent have been followed, and nine percent have been forced to do something sexual. Some women, like myself, are too scared to react.
My fear of a very real problem that women face impeded me from being able to react in a timely manner to the larger, more transparent issue at hand. After yelling “I’m sorry but that is unacceptable!” You yelled: “No permiso!” [no permission], laughing in a terrible Spanish accent. At that point, time stood still. My colleague and I stared at each other, open-mouthed, processing what had happened. Had we just been recipients of hate speech? Had that really happened to us, in New York City, in 2017? I suppose in retrospect, with Trump as president, I should not have been as surprised; but I was, because part of me wanted to hope that the world isn’t infested with so much evil. It was my disbelief that disabled me from reacting. In this situation, I was not scared. I was disappointed. The vision of the United States as a beacon of “liberty and justice for all” became all the more mythical. You corroborated what I already knew: the irony and inaccessibility of US ideals. And despite me being the type of woman who likes to be right, in that moment, I wanted to be proved wrong.
One of your companions yelled out, loud enough so my friend and I could hear even though the three of you had created some distance, and continued along your xenophobic, merry way: “Did you just speak Mexican?”
“No, that’s Spanish!” you replied.
Just like English is still English in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, Spanish is still Spanish in Spain and the Hispanophone world. You may be ignorant, but your friend cannot be that ignorant...can he? I know he said “Mexican” to deepen your bigoted blow because Mexico is often conflated with all of Latin America; and Mexico is perceived to be the brunt of Latin America by egregious anti-Mexican sentiments. I pity your friend, who sacrificed his intellect in the name of racist martyrdom.
The irony of your “this is ‘America’ [the term “America” includes Canada, the US, and Latin America so let’s stop the semantic appropriation] so you should only speak in English” message is that you spoke in broken Spanish to us. You clearly said “no permiso,” thereby acknowledging the importance of knowing a second language to effectively communicate your desires, however prejudice. In implying I should not speak in Spanish, you attempted to speak to us in Spanish. You defeated the whole purpose of your hate speech, buddy!
I am angry at myself for not responding to you before letting you three get away. I’m angry that I was fine with staying silent when I assumed you were a cat-caller. (I need to work on that!) I’m angry that all I could do was convince myself that that had not happened. I’m angry I could not collect my thoughts fast enough to engage in dialogue with you over your sad perspective on diversity/ pluralism/ cultural hybridization. I’m angry my multilingual mind could not function quickly when I needed it most--because all my brain was sending me were curse words, and that would have only worsened Latinx stereotypes. I am angry at you for making me get angry at myself.
But I also want to thank you. Because of this incident, I have had time to reflect and share my experience with others. I hope no one else is made to feel ashamed of their history, their heritage, their culture, their language. I hope no one else is forced to be silenced or discouraged from manifesting their identity. I hope no one else is made to feel lesser because of their immigration history and/or immigration status. If someone does experience something akin to what my friend and I endured at the hand of your twisted humor, I hope they handle it better than I did. I hope they have the courage, strength and wisdom to react appropriately, and challenge the perpetrator's bigot ideology in the moment. I hope they leave the situation even prouder of being who they are. I certainly have, so gracias. You inadvertently made me prouder of my Latinidad, my Colombian heritage, my immigrant identity, my womanness.
I want to remind you that this nation does not have an official, national language. I want to remind you that the English language is influenced by other languages. I want to remind you that even if you are not an immigrant, you have a history of immigration in your ancestry. I want to remind you that this nation runs on immigrants. it is people like my colleague and me who make this country great--a country that has always been great (though it has a lot to improve) because of the direct result of immigration. De nada.
A proud, Spanish-speaking immigrant