Language, Race, and Belonging in the U.S.A.

August 1, 2023

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This is the third in a five part series featuring the staff of HILSC and their experiences with belonging.

Chris Dupree – One November day in sixth grade, I forgot my lunch so I used the office phone at school to call my mom to bring it for me. It is a memory I would have forgotten by now if not for what happened next. The following week, I found myself at school in the office of a woman whom I had never met asking me a series of questions in Spanish. I spent the next few weeks in successive speech tests, both at the school and at a clinic my father took me, to prove if I knew English. The school never did confirm what made them suddenly turn their attention to me halfway through the school year, but we all speculate that I had made the “mistake” of speaking in Spanish within earshot of faculty when I called my mom.

It was a jarring moment for my eleven-year-old self since I had gone through the journey of learning English since I permanently moved to the U.S. at seven.  I had learned it well enough to stop attracting unwanted stares of confusion or amusement at my accent. I had put in the work to “assimilate” in my view, learning to speak English well enough to belong in America. Yet here I was having to prove again that I could speak English. If I couldn’t, I would be removed from my class until the school determined I had earned my place back with my classmates. A long time passed before I repeated the “mistake” of speaking Spanish around an English-speaking adult.

~

I was born in San Antonio but spent most of my childhood in Panama. My family eventually moved to Houston before relocating permanently to Katy, Texas. The change hit me hard as a kid, leaving behind the family I grew up with and having to acclimate to a country I hadn’t lived in since I was an infant. Spanish was my first language with English a distant second, making the transition harder. I adapted well enough by the end of third grade and felt more at ease in this country. As long as I avoided certain words where my accent betrayed me. Saying words like chair, where I mispronounced the “ch” sound with the “sh” sound (Chair? Share? Said the bewildered classmates with exaggerated laughter) pushed me out of the circle of my peers until I could convince everyone I belonged again. Better to call it a “seat” next time.

Though it did come at a cost. By ten my Spanish had atrophied with disuse since I only had my mother as a conversational partner. That summer my sister and I spent it with my grandmother in Panama to in part help with my Spanish. The trip made me feel a sense of loss I hadn’t experienced since I moved away. Up to then, I still identified myself as Panamanian and as a Spanish speaker, but the reality hit at how much of the language I had lost by then. Though said with good intent, the comment “your Spanish has really improved!” throughout the summer by my family did more to discourage than encourage me.

All the more jarring when the school questioned my English and said I had to take the speech tests. Where did I belong if not among English or Spanish speakers? Though I eventually proved I did not need the intervention my school so kindly offered me, it did leave me with the lingering question about my ability to communicate and whether I really did belong with everyone.

A part of me still felt like I belonged with my Spanish speaking Panamanian side which would explain why I never felt completely at ease with my American classmates. By high school, I came across more immigrant children that congregated together in Spanish conversation. I made a few attempts, but the reverse happened now at fourteen, where my Spanish was too incoherent for me to belong to that circle. So I closed the door to the Panamanian part of my identity and moved on.

~

Throughout the rest of high school and college, I read and read and read books. I carefully excised the last vestiges of my accent and could finally say “chair” without getting looks. People’s impression were usually of how well spoken I was rather than about my accent. The opposite when it came to Spanish as I spoke it less and less. It did not necessarily mean I felt like I belonged in American society.

The belonging barometer developed by Over Zero and the Center for Inclusion and Belonging does a good job of describing how people experience interactions in a spectrum rather than a binary. There is no such thing as a full sense of belonging even for those born and raised in the U.S. but at least the sense of belonging is enough to go about life in relative peace without having to argue for their continued existence in a given space. As a community, there are steps we can take to make sure to create space and systems where the greatest amount of people can feel at ease and respected.

For those with Latinx roots, belonging has gotten easier to do across the board. Speaking multiple languages suddenly is coveted by American parents for their children. Many children of immigrants like me feel more comfortable identifying as Latinx whether they speak Spanish well or not.

I have opened the door to my Panamanian identity in recent years. When I met my now wife in 2014, her questions about my language and identity pushed me to acknowledge that side of me without the shame that had built up over the years. Her very different Latinx experience, where she lived with both sides of her family close by in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, allowed me to explore that side of my identity again while expanding the Spanish conversational partners beyond just my mom.

I still get compliments about how well I speak Spanish, but it does not grate as much anymore. I may never feel like I belong completely in the U.S. but I have found family and friends that do a good job of making me feel included in a community. Society has changed enough to acknowledge that Latinx people exist beyond a handful of racist stereotypes, so I don’t feel the need to argue as much that I belong in the space alongside more “traditional” Americans.

But there’s still a lot more that can change for the better and getting to meet an increasing number of people that believe the same has made me more optimistic. I now have two daughters that I can raise speaking to in Spanish without fearing it would put a target on their backs at school. I can converse in Spanish and people are less likely to switch to English, accepting my words with American accent and all. I let my hair grow out now.

Every person undergoes a journey to belong in a community and feel accepted while facing many roadblocks. It may be hard for some to understand why we as a society need to do more to increase the sense of belonging when they feel they personally were able to do it “on their own.” It is a valid question. Ultimately, belonging is a personal journey as much as it is an external experience. But having faced roadblocks to belonging including language and how people respond to my race, I could see why at times no amount of personal work can truly resolve a sense of belonging for some until society at large steps away from its rigid framework of assimilation.

Other requirements, like discouraging children from speaking Spanish, should not be a price anyone else has to pay. Belonging for many people has gotten easier over the years including for people like me, but the progress we have made on certain fronts reveals the gulf that still exists for others with identities different from mine. Some are asked to sacrifice bigger parts of themselves than just language for the sake of belonging. That is not a calculus any person, especially a child, should have to make. The U.S. has done some work on this front but there is so much more left to do before it lives up to its commitment to creating a truly humane society.
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