Por Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
Mi viaje de aprender un otro lenguaje me regaló muchas experiencias que han cambiado mi percepción del rol de las lenguas en nuestras vidas cotidianas. Como ahora ustedes pueden ver, yo puedo comunicarme en el lenguaje de inglés y el lenguaje de español (sin usar una sistema computadora de traducir). Mi situación de aprender el español mientras estaba yo en mi juventud me marca como persona única porque, aunque yo no soy latino, he tenido el privilegio de compartir en las experiencias de mis amigos latinos y tambien de vivir un poquito en sus zapatos en ciertas circunstancias.
(Por la causa de las lineas rojas que yo veo debajo de las palabras que escribo, voy a continuar esta conversación en inglés, la moda más cómoda de la sistema de blog que uso.) You can use the internet to translate.
My ability to speak and write in Spanish in addition to English changed my life forever. And, I’m very proud of being able to enter into another cultural frame within my American experience. It really is quite rad.
By consequence, however, I have come to realize some nuances in our perception of “culture.” Most recently, while I was eating at a Mexican restaurant, an employee slipped into some Spanish with me unintentionally. Rather than respond in English like I usually do, I just continued our conversation in Spanish. Now I’m not going to say that my action to order my food in Spanish was the direct cause for our later conversation, during which he asked me if I was from Panama or if my parents were Latinos. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an influence. The point is, sometimes we can discern a lot about people judging from their appearances and their actions, and we sometimes are in the correct mode of thought for doing so. Sometimes judging by appearance…especially where culture is concerned…is an essential part of the beauty of life.
We live in a “politically-correct” society that would rather us be color-blind and culture-blind…until the month of February rolls around when we can pull out the old Civil War and Civil/Human Rights paraphernalia. But really, why do we do that? Our world is flavorless without the great cultural distinctions that exist and arise among ourselves. We shouldn’t just celebrate and remember our differences on cultural holidays designed to celebrate culture at its worst while we practice ignoring our cultures or using them for societal blame-games year-round.
One of the most startling things that I observe today is the outright fear of many to even ask a person about their culture or what the person’s heritage is when they are justifiably curious. Your hear somebody switch from Italian to Spanish, and then address you in English at a historical seminar about Cesar Chavez…but you’re too afraid to ask if they are Latino because it might be racist? What?
And we often slip into intellectual comas when we get somebody wrong, or somehow mistake one culture for another (like a Samoan and Maori mix-up, it happens). Being wrong about culture shows us our need to learn more, or even how we are overusing what we do know. Too many times we’re hampered by a fear of being wrong, or by discovering that a person doesn’t identify how we would like to identify them. The man at the Latino restaurant was embarrassed when he realized that he had slipped into Spanish with me. But it was perfectly understandable because he had been communicating almost nonstop to the rest of the Spanish-speaking staff, coordinating their serving efforts. He wasn’t ashamed of his heritage, but he was afraid that I didn’t understand him and that I’d become offended.
And, to his surprise, I knew Spanish too, and we had a nice conversation because of it. No, I’m not from Panama and my parents are definitely not Latino…but I didn’t jump down his throat for making an honest assumption that was incorrect. There are no accusations of microaggressions here. No need for safe spaces; the restaurant was safe enough.
And my experience with Latinos doesn’t even always go that way. One time my family and I were in the rural mountains and we had purchased a good bit of farm goods to take back home. The man who helped us load our truck was Mexican and didn’t know much English at all. By then, my Latino friends and my Spanish teacher had helped me to become quasi-fluent, so my dad had me communicate with the Mexican man so that we could complete the task together. By the time we were done, the man was asking me personally if I hailed from a certain part of Mexico he knew of because of my accent. It was as if he didn’t believe that I was blood-related to my family! You see, culture factors heavily into our identity– it can even clash with other aspects of ourselves in the translation. Cultures are great at being dimensional reflections of who we are, just like our gender and even our personal name. They shouldn’t be feared when we approach each other in conversation and they shouldn’t be assumed to give us everything we need to know.
Cultures vary from person to person. Sure, we may encounter a “homogeneous” community that shares a basic phenotype and the same general belief, but at the end of the day every two people will disagree on something that will consequently effect the culture. Two black Americans may vote for two completely different political parties, heck one person may not even identify as “black.” Two Irish men may have two completely different religious philosophies behind their worldview. Two women may have two completely different expectations for what they should be doing for society. It’s all bound to happen.
That’s the miracle of culture. Cultural understanding often takes getting to know a person before making conclusions, and it also involves the willingness to read the cultural signs in order to even begin that personal process. Getting to know someone personally and reading their cultural signs are not mutually exclusive things. It’s an all-in-one activity, just like breathing and living. You do one thing while doing the other in order to accomplish both.
So why then, when cultural conversations of ethnicity, politics, or religion arise in public and private arenas, do we as a “free society” cringe so much? Often these conversations are characterized as the no-no topics (“race,” religion, and politics). But what does it mean when our “free society” distances itself from cultural revelation in order to live in a more understanding fashion. What does it mean when we choose to stop breathing in order to live– or better yet– what is going to happen?
It really is something to think about. If nothing else has been learned here or from any of my other posts on these subjects, then let this question be the take away. And let the question marinate upon your heart and mind as you go about your business, day by day, interacting in real life with this mighty “free society” plethora of cultures that we love to call…America.