Spanish mission in Carmel California

Speaking Spanish in California

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The Spanish-speaking community in California has a very complex dynamic. There are so many different experiences that it can be difficult to choose who to speak Spanish with and who to speak English with. A wave of nativism has made Spanish speakers analyze the perception of their language and plan accordingly. I value the diversity of California and want Spanish, and other languages, to be freely spoken everywhere. However, I have come to realize that not speaking Spanish may be a defense mechanism against a highly charged national debate.  

I am not a native Spanish speaker. I learned Spanish as a second language as an adult. I’ve taken classes, lived in Mexico for over a decade, and my wife and kids are Mexican. I can speak the language at an advanced level but I will never be confused for a native speaker because of my accent. 

Speaking Spanish in California.
Los Angeles is a Spanish-speaking part of California.

On a recent road trip with my wife, kids, and mother-in-law, we passed through Arizona on our way to California. While we were paying for a meal at the Cracker Barrel I was saying something to my son in Spanish when an old man with a red Trump hat approached us and told me that I should teach him English. I had to get my bearings and realize that he was directing himself at my son and me. When I responded that we speak English just fine he heard my accent and realized that I was a native English speaker, he changed his tone real quickly and slithered out of the restaurant saying what a cute boy I had. One can only imagine how many times that old bigot has harassed the families of Spanish speakers before getting to me. 

And that is my assessment of Arizona. I honestly don’t know the state that well. I read the newspaper and have friends who live there.  A friend from Hermosillo, Sonora studied in Phoenix during the era of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and really held a strong resentment about his targeting of Hispanic people. She ended up getting a master’s degree at the London School of Economics because she didn’t want to go to grad school in the US after her undergraduate exchange program. 

I always thought that California was much more welcoming to Spanish speakers. I understand that there are outliers but for the most part, Spanish was accepted as the predominant second language, or sometimes the third language. I always thought it was really cool to see Asian immigrants to California pick up English as a second language and then Spanish as a third. Have you ever seen Chef Roy Choi, the godfather of the food truck movement, speak Spanish and sing Norteño songs? He’s legit. 

One thing that is important to remember is that just because someone looks Latino or has a Hispanic last name they don’t necessarily speak Spanish. I worked with a guy named Miguel Salcedo a long time ago. He was handsome, dark-skinned, and originally from San Jose, California. The manager of the restaurant was originally from South Africa but had been in the US for at least a decade. I will never forget the interrogation the manager gave Miguel about where he was from. It went something like this.

Manager: So, Miguel, where are you from?
Miguel: San Jose
Manager: No, well, like where are your parents from?
Miguel: San Jose. My grandparents are from San Jose too. And no, I don’t speak Spanish.

The South African manager couldn’t comprehend the fact that a guy with the name Miguel Salcedo didn’t speak Spanish and hadn’t immigrated from somewhere else. 

At that same restaurant, I worked with an older guy from Honduras. Mario was very eloquent but had the mildest hint of a flamboyantly Latin accent. He had been in the US for a really long time and was quite cultured. I remember talking to him about a table that insisted on speaking to him in Spanish even though they didn’t speak Spanish well enough to correctly order their food and drinks. His first impression was that this white couple was talking down to him for being Hispanic and having an accent. Later, he explained that the table was taking Spanish classes but didn’t have anybody to speak with outside of the class. They read his reaction to their insistence to speak Spanish and realized it had been misinterpreted. At that point, he was happy to help them with their Spanish after realizing there was no slight intended. The couple was appreciative of any grammar corrections that Mario would offer them.

I have had to learn the same lesson. I don’t insist on speaking Spanish with anyone anymore. I used to be that Spanish learner who was insistent on practicing my second language. Use it or lose it, I thought. I think a big part of it is that now I am confident enough with my Spanish that I don’t need to be trying to prove myself to every Spanish speaker in the room. 

That brings me to some interactions I experienced traveling with my family in California over the last few years. We speak Spanish and English at home. My mother-in-law has done a marvelous job improving her English but is still developing the technical vocabulary of things like Italian cooking and wine descriptions. My father-in-law and I speak to each other exclusively in Spanish which requires a little bit of translation in front of a food server or cashier.

We were surprised time and again how many people turned to us and said they could take our order or even describe the differences between two glasses of red wine, in Spanish. People that I would not have expected to have spoken Spanish so well because of their ethnicity.

Speaking Spanish in Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles with my in-laws.

On our first trip to Los Angeles as a multigenerational family with a one-year-old baby. We took photos at the streetlight exhibit in front of the LA County Museum of Art and headed over to the Grove. All four of the adults are avid coffee drinkers and we were deciding what to order as a group. I was telling my father-in-law something in Spanish and turned to the cashier to start the order in English. She didn’t skip a beat responding that she would be happy to take our order in Spanish. She was of Asian ancestry but spoke English like she was from the San Fernando Valley. Wherever she learned to speak Spanish she did it really well. That was community-level language acquisition and not the academic or classroom varietal. 

Speaking Spanish in California
Speaking Spanish in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur was spectacular. We drove from Morro Bay to Santa Cruz stopping in Carmel to see the mission, catch the sunset at Pebble Beach, and have a seafood dinner. I was talking to my in-laws about the different styles of local beer in California when the server approached. He was someone I would never speak to in Spanish had my in-laws not been there. He’s obviously from California with some Hispanic ancestry. Just like my buddy Miguel Salcedo, you can never assume that someone speaks a language because of the way they look or the sound of their name. 

The server looked at me, then my in-laws, and heard us talking about beer in Spanish. He smiled, said “Oh, I speak Spanish too” and proceeded to give us a rundown on their large craft beer list which he knew a lot about. 

Lastly, there was the little surfer girl working at the Rip Curl outlet in Santa Cruz. She and her boyfriend were saving up to go to Sayulita, Nayarit the following summer. Sayulita is just a few hours from where we live in Guadalajara and we told her how cool the area is and about all the pueblos with surf along Riviera Nayarit. She didn’t speak much Spanish but she told me that she was going to take Spanish next semester because she wanted to travel to Mexico. 

Fun waves at Sayulita point
Mexican vacations have convinced Californians to learn Spanish for generations.

This brings me to another point. Many Mexican tourists to California complain that not enough Hispanic-looking people actually speak Spanish and want to wait on them in Spanish. Another waitress that I worked with a long time ago explained it like this. Mexican tourists are incredibly demanding. Nice restaurants in Mexico have very high service standards. Fine dining has a lot of technical vocabulary. She spoke Spanish at home with her parents but had never studied the language formally at school. Using the language in a professional setting where mistakes cost money is stressful. If there is an error made by either side, the server is going to be responsible for that mistake. Imagine that mistake is a $50 steak or a round of expensive drinks. She is going to want to take the order, describe the ingredients and preparations in her strongest language. 

At least in San Diego, I saw a number of rich Mexicans from Tijuana berate and utterly disrespect my Spanish-speaking coworkers by snapping and barking orders. There was a completely different dynamic between those guests and the non-Spanish-speaking staff.

Once, a doctor from Tijuana with his entire family told me my Spanish was really good. It wasn’t really good. I was in Spanish 3 and had just returned from Costa Rica. It was acceptable at best. Anyways, they said, “Your Spanish is really good, did you spend too much time in a Tijuana prison or something?” I wasn’t sure if that was a joke or not. 

If you are going to step up to the plate and attend to restaurant patrons in a second language you need to bring your A-game. Sub-par language skills will cost a food server time and money. 

There were plenty of other people who spoke Spanish to us in San Diego, Santa Cruz, Gilroy, San Francisco among others but these were the stories that excited me the most. Some of those unexpected treats leave you with a smile. 

The other thing is that I now feel like I am a Spanish speaker. I speak Spanish with my immediate family and with my extended family. We speak Spanish at home and in public. However, in today’s political climate we are much more aware of the perception of our Spanish in public. We love hearing different languages in public but not everyone does. We must be aware of our surroundings at all times because you never know when some lunatic is going to have a breakdown because someone is speaking Spanish near them.

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