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Why I Speak Spanish

Warning: Some of the content in this post may challenge you as I talk about a politically charged topic.If you start reading, please read all the way to the end or you might miss the main message.

Here’s What It Was Like Growing Up As An Illegal Alien 

I spent most of my life as an illegal alien, watching from the outside as I desperately wanted citizenship. I did everything I could to fit in; I changed my behavior, learned to speak another language, and looked down on the other illegals who didn’t put in the same effort I did to ‘look the part’. 

I was treated like a second-class citizen because I was not a native-born, many in the community looked down on me when they met or learn of my family. My family was clearly not citizens, they didn’t speak the language, kept to themselves, didn’t attempt to integrate, and everything about their behavior and accent gave away how much they didn’t belong.

Then, I married a citizen. He taught me about his culture, while still struggling to integrate. People were kind and nice, but on occasion, some changed the way they treated me because I was not a born citizen and my past was not acceptable. They spoke slower even though I learned the language. When misunderstandings arose - normal ones that happen in life - they sighed and chalked it up to me not being born into it. They’d looked down upon me rather than clarifying what was confusing.

Middle School

I am not a front-row student. Those students get way too much attention and I’ve always preferred to fly under the radar if I can. There’s the added benefit of being able to work ahead if you sit in the back row and finishing your work before the teacher can even finish her lecture. That’s exactly the tactic I used in my 7th-grade geography class.

The teacher was really passionate about the subject and overall a very caring teacher, but geography, in the forms of technical terms, never interested me. I was very bored in the class and I’d frequently have the homework done before she finished her lesson. Once the lesson was over she’d give everyone 15 minutes to start working on their homework and I could use this time to read my own book. 

One day she was walking through the back row and she paused at the students next to me. She spoke slowly and clearly to them but I could tell she was very frustrated, they had been drawing pictures on their worksheets rather than doing them. Outright not doing the work would never have crossed my mind so my interest was piqued and I observed as casually as I could.

“You need to do these worksheets.” She said to them.

They looked up at her and shrugged their shoulders.

Her impatience was growing. “You need to do the class work or you won't pass. NO PASS-EH.”

One of the boys spoke up. “No learn-eh no speak-eh.”

She rolled her eyes and put her hands up in exasperation and walked away. I watched the boys out of the corner of my eye for the rest of the period as they tried hard to figure out the worksheet. My next few classes had a handful of the same students in them and I observed how the teachers all clearly avoided them and in some cases utterly ignored them. They were there but not really there.

It went against my grain. I didn’t like how completely overlooked they were - even though I had ignored them until only a few days earlier. They sat away from everyone at lunch and were totally ignored by the other students. Sure everyone has their group of friends they eat with but they at least acknowledge the other students with nods and pleasantries, but these kids were unacknowledged.

I didn’t fly below the radar because that’s what I wanted, I genuinely wanted to be seen but because of a complicated home life it was just better, I felt, to go unseen. My insides hurt that there were others that lived this same existence. They were ok with being unseen because in many of their cases they were not legally here so going under the radar was also to their benefit.

I asked one of my friends what they thought of the table in the corner that no one ever looked at and she replied “That’s where the dumb kids sit. They’ll fail out soon enough or drop out.” a few others agreed with her.

I was sickened by her sentiments. I had seen what one of them was drawing on his paper it was great. He wasn’t stupid he just didn’t understand. Speaking English couldn’t and shouldn’t be the sole measure of their intelligence and worth. 

So a few days later I mustered up my courage and when our geography teacher was done with her lecture I moved my chair in front of their desks and began to slowly read the worksheets to them. At first, they just looked at me in shock, but I had a natural self-consequence about me and I pushed through the initial awkwardness.

I used hand movements and gestures to help me, I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and they spoke very little English, but we managed. Each day was the same and it moved from being more than just in geography class into the others. My Language Arts teacher got mad at me one day but I told her my grades weren’t suffering and neither were theirs and asked her to make an exception to her no talking rule. She liked the classroom to be quiet so the students could do their reading and my voice isn’t exactly quiet, I eventually talked her into letting us go to the library at the end of each period promising we would not mess around and get in trouble.

This lasted the rest of 7th grade and 8th grade. They picked up more English and needed less and less help and I learned some very basic Spanish. As soon as I got into 9th grade and could take a language I jumped on the opportunity and took the accelerated program. I was in advanced classes so I rarely ever had ESL students in my classes anymore but they all knew where my friends and I sat for lunch and they’d seek me out if they needed anything. My friends were all appalled with me over this set-up and frequently asked me why I bothered to talk with them. They were undesirable. I just rolled my eyes and did my own thing, which if you haven’t noticed, is pretty much what I did all the time.

All Men Were Created Equal

I’m not quoting from any American doctrine here, I’m quoting a Christian one. You see when I said earlier that I was an illegal alien I meant I was an outsider in the body of Christ. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home and every time I stepped foot in a Christian house or a Christian church I knew I was a foreigner and I accepted that I would not be treated with the same respect and dignity as a ‘citizen’ would be. I knew I would be judged when they met my family.

When I was 12 years old I went to the church at the end of my street. I had decided that I was old enough to make that trek and so I did (see I really did whatever I wanted). For several weeks I showed up at the church and sat in the back during the grown-up service - I had no clue there was a children’s service. Several of the parishioners noticed me and were entertained by my appearance. At first, they just watched me but after a week or two someone finally greeted me. They were so nice and I was so excited I went straight home and told my mom how cool they were and began convincing her to come to. 

Eventually, my mom came with me a few weeks later. Comments were made by both parties and my mom left never to return to that church again, and the next week when I showed up I was told it was better if I stopped coming and that I wasn’t welcome.

I wasn’t a natural born citizen of the kingdom of heaven and my visa was denied. Years passed by and I continued to attend church, in fact, I even believed Jesus was the risen Son of God and my personal Savior, yet church after church treated me differently than those who were born into Christian families. I’d attend with friends who were from Christian families and I would get excluded from activities or events because I didn’t come from a Christian family. I spoke “Christianese” I modified my behavior and yet I still wasn’t one of them. In some cases, I even followed the rules better than the kids from Christian homes.

I wanted so desperately to be a part of the community. To each other, they were kind, loving, helpful, forgiving, and understanding. I couldn’t explain it back then, but I knew God was real even if they weren’t. I knew God loved me as his daughter and I had the same value to Him and that after this life my reward would be the same, but I accepted that in this life I would never be a member of the in-crowd. In some cases, I even viewed Christians as a necessary evil that had to be dealt with to follow the God I knew existed.

Being unseen and unheard is a painful way to live and there is a large population of people in this country that live that way every single day. The plight of these students was familiar to me because it was what I faced every time I attended church. I couldn’t have articulated it this way back then, I simply knew I was just like them in some way. I knew we were the same even if our earthly citizenship wasn’t the same.