When I was a kid in the DC ‘burbs in the 1980’s, the area was also known as Little San Salvador. The biggest community fleeing El Salvador’s civil war settled in our nation’s capital.
As a result, I was exposed to machismo, pupusas, and the sounds of Spanish from an early age. I chose German as my first foreign language, in 8th grade, but quickly realized that having 2 foreign languages might make up for my abysmal math grades, so added Spanish in 10th grade. It was around this time that I had a boyfriend whose parents were from Nicaragua, and I definitely learned more vocabulary in their living room than I ever did at school. (“You speak ‘kitchen Spanish,'” a teacher told me. Still not sure if that was an insult or a compliment.) At one point in high school, I spent a summer in a “language immersion” program on a college campus, and I think this must have been where I actually learned grammar, although I don’t really remember ever not knowing it– if that makes sense.
In college, I minored in both Spanish and German, with vague plans of becoming a UN translator. I studied abroad in Berlin, and then in Costa Rica, where I lived with the sweetest family ever– I can still picture them. After that, I went to Puerto Rico for an internship and was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to roll my Rs– I could just pronounce them as Ls.
My Spanish took a sharp decline when I was in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony, but rebounded when I came back to New York and worked in a restaurant with an all-Mexican kitchen staff.
In the intervening 15 years, that Spanish has been marinating somewhere in the corner of my brain, being revived during stays in the Dominican Republic and Mexico, and occasionally getting brought out when a Spanish-speaking person asks me for directions in New York or DC (this happens to me kind of a lot).
Now I’m learning a whole new Spanish, and it’s called Argentine. It’s going well, but about once a day, someone says, “Where are you from? Colombia? Venezuela? Why do you have a Puerto Rican accent? Are your parents Hispanic?” And my favorite: “You’re Brazilian, right?”
I’m doing well, though. I can talk to almost anyone about almost anything, and while I hate to read and write in Spanish, I can do it if I have to. I’ve been studying with a tutor here, and since learning how poor my literacy is, she’s been making me read tons of articles and novels and write essays (today’s was titled “Hispanics and Anglo Saxons are Different: Is it True?”). My goal is to be able to work moderating focus group in Spanish…stay tuned for progress on that front.