Home > Bilingual Education, Bilingualism, Education, Racial Identity, Racism > Part II-Beginning Origins of The Unapologetic Polyglot: High School Years and Identity Crisis Dilemmas

Part II-Beginning Origins of The Unapologetic Polyglot: High School Years and Identity Crisis Dilemmas

As I begin this blog, I figured that it would be helpful to explain who I am and what makes me tick before I go into one of my manic rants about something that has happened in my life. I’m dying to get to the ranting and venting posts, but I think it is useful to take a step back and dig deep into who I am. Besides, the flashbacks to my past have been somewhat helpful to me in understanding myself, to a certain degree.

A couple of days ago, I blogged about my elementary school years. You can read about it here, and probably should read about it first before you read this post about my high school years.

As I mentioned in my origins post, my mother sent me to live with my father in a predominately immigrant dominant community when I was in the eighth grade. I came home to live with my mother when I was in the ninth grade. It was in the ninth grade during my first year of high school when I took my first formal Spanish class. I don’t remember very clearly my high school years, but what I do remember was my Spanish class on the first day of school. The teacher exposed us to the alphabet in English by giving us the Spanish alphabet with a cheat sheet regarding the Spanish pronunciation. For example, next to the letter “b” had “bay” written as the way to pronounce the word. My Spanish professor was a white man who through the mormon church had lived in Peru for a number of years.

I really loved my Spanish class and had the same teacher for almost three years. In the middle of my eleventh grade class, my Spanish teacher moved me into an honor’s Spanish class with another teacher. My teacher was from Mexico, and the entire class was taught in Spanish (much differently than my first Spanish teacher). It was primarily literature-based. I was a bit in culture shock, because I had never been in a class that was conducted all in Spanish, but I quickly got over that. 

In my senior year, I was placed in an advanced placement Spanish class with the same teacher from Mexico. I was the only native English-speaker in the advanced placement class, so they placed me in a Spanish literature class for native-Spanish speakers who were recent arrivals to the United States. I can remember clearly the day that I was laughed at for speaking Spanish, a day that caused much shame and embarrassment for years. Until my senior year of high school, I had always been praised for quick acquisition of Spanish as well as my accent while speaking in Spanish (people always claimed that I didn’t have the typical “gringa” accent common to many native English-speaking Spanish learners). One day in particular our class was conducting a grammar exercise that went along with the Don Quixote in a round-robin type setting where each person was called on one by one to answer a question. I was asked to conjugate the verb “traer” into a past tense verb. I stated, “Traje” and all of the other native Spanish-speaking students on the other side of the classroom began laughing. I was very confused, because I was almost positive that “traer” was an irregular verb and was conjugated in the way in which I had answered. One of the other students laughed and erroneously said, “No, it’s ‘trai'”. The teacher quickly corrected the student and mentioned that my conjugation was correct, but I still felt a deep sense of embarrassment, although I was correct.

After that day, I never spoke Spanish again in front of native Spanish-speakers (very close friends excluded) until years later when I was in college. I can only imagine how damaging something like this could be to someone who is learning English as well. I would assume it would be even more psychologically damaging due to the power dynamics of being an immigrant and learning English. 

Keeping consistent with my elementary and middle school years, I continued to have mainly Latino and African American friends and continued my chases after all the cute Latino boys. The more proficient I became in Spanish, the more culturally alienated I felt as a teenager and I began to slip into a depression. My mother constantly would yell at me because she claimed that I spoke “like a Mexican”. At the time I couldn’t comprehend exactly what she was telling me, but she would get very angry and tell me that I had an accent when I spoke in English. She would become especially angry when I would make comments like, “I’m going to get down for a minute” (i.e., “I’m going to get out of the car for a minute”). It was incomprehensible to me what on Earth she was talking about for years, until one day I was sitting in a workshop on Chicano English. I’ll blog about my epiphany during that workshop at a later time, but it became clear after the fact that I had picked up many local speech habits of some of my English-speaking Latina/o friends. 

My mother also began to become very uncomfortable with me having so many Latina/o friends when I was in high school. She began to question me as to why I only wanted to hang out with “the Mexicans”. “Do you feel bad about yourself?” she would frequently ask. “Don’t you feel that you deserve any better? Does it make you feel superior that you have friends that are beneath you? Is that why you hang out with all these Mexicans-to make you feel better?” she would also inquire. “You must have really low self esteem. You don’t even love yourself”, she frequently cajoled. 

I became very confused and alienated because I didn’t understand why she was insinuating that there was something wrong with me for having the friends that I had. I couldn’t comprehend why she was telling me that I only had my Latina/o friends because I wanted to make myself feel better than them. I instinctively knew that that what she was telling me was wrong, but I didn’t have the capacity at the time to recognize and name the construct of racism. Instead, I began to internalize that there was something wrong with me.

During my high school years, I also began to feel culturally isolated from my friends. I struggled with the fact that although I felt as if I were part of the group, I still felt that I was outside of the group. There would be times when I wouldn’t understand everything completely when people were talking in Spanish, especially jokes and social language and I was afraid to admit that I didn’t understand. I saw the disconnect between my native-born English-speaking Latina friends and My recent immigrant friends, and I felt torn between them as they were polarized from one another. My friends would sometimes bash “white girls” who dated some of the other guys, but they would tell me, “Oh, but you are different. I don’t even notice you are white”.

“But you’re different. I don’t even think of you as white”. That comment has been said to me over and over and over again throughout my life. Until just recently I have fully come to terms with the fact that it is a compliment, but at the time of my high school years it made me feel ashamed because I was white. Talk about going through a major identity crisis that lasted throughout my twenties.

I’m a bilingual education and language fanatic, and one of the themes that lately that I have been mulling over is the interconnectedness of language with identity. This is something that I plan on discussing in a future post, discussing how becoming bilingual has completely changed my identity. I often wonder if students in Dual Immersion programs, where native English-speakers and native Spanish-speakers are mixed together to learn two languages, go through the same sort of identity crisis as they develop into proficient bilingual students. {Sidenote: Dual programs can also teach other languages besides just English and Spanish as I just mentioned}. If so, what types of support systems do they need from teachers and parents that will enable them to come to acceptance with their identity issues.

In my particular case in high school, I became culturally alienated and thought that there was something wrong with me being bilingual and different from other white people. When it was also paired with my realization that I was different than my Latina/o friends, I became alienated and depressed. I carried around this identity crisis for years until I came to accept my difference in my twenties. I’m sure that if I would have had a supportive mother at the time who did not make me feel as if there was something bad about being culturally and linguistically different than other people, it probably wouldn’t have been so damaging to my identity development. 

Next I will blog about my college years and the years when I first began my career as a bilingual educator, and how my identity crisis eventually worked itself out. Thanks for following along!

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