I was born in the United States but moved to Mexico at a very young age. Being that my mother and grandparents, who helped raise me, spoke Spanish as their native language, this also became my native or “mother” language. I speak, read, and write it fluently. A mother language, by definition, is the language you are exposed to from birth. Growing up in a small town in Mexico I also had limited exposure to the Tarahumara language. The Tarahumara language is a Mexican indigenous language of the Uto-Aztecan language family spoken by around 70,000 Tarahumara people in the state of Chihuahua, the state I grew up in. I was also exposed to English when my cousins would visit us from the States. I would mimic and pretend to also speak English by repeatedly saying things like shua shua shua (my made-up language), because that sounded like English to me. They never corrected me, an act of kindness I believe.
I was 11 years old when my mother uprooted my younger sister and me from the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua to colorful Colorado. I was extremely against this, because I would miss my friends and grandparents, but was also excited to learn English and see a new place. We hopped on a strong-smelling bus and 16 hours later arrived in Denver, our new home.
My mom held us back a year in school so we could learn to speak English quickly.
A year later from the help of a sweet, kind ESL (English as a second language) teacher and the cheerful aardvark on PBS, my sister and I were speaking English fluently. The ESL teacher struggled with me a bit. I kept mispronouncing the letter v; apparently you’re supposed to do something with your teeth and mouth at the same time so it doesn’t sound like the letter b. Until this day I struggle to say the letter v correctly, even though I am often challenged to spell out my name, I quickly say, “v, as in Victor,” and sigh, tenderly remembering my ESL teacher.
I also can’t, for the life of me, say charcuterie, but that’s a conversation for another time.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak two languages very fluently. Even when my brain often struggles to switch from one to the other causing me to speak Spanglish, it has come in so handy. Experiencing the sigh of relief a person at a store or over the phone feels when I say I speak Spanish is truly a beautiful experience. Meeting someone at their language is also such a unique connection. So much more cultural relevance comes from asking someone how they are doing in their native language. My favorite is how quickly that person will ask me where I am from and then the conversation takes flight from there.
Speaking in other languages other than English in the United States is not always met with enthusiasm. I wouldn’t be able to count the amount of times friends and I have been sitting at a lunch table gabbing on about what’s going on with our lives in our Spanish sing-song only to be met by a stranger, or sometimes a co-worker saying “don’t speak that nonsense here, I can’t understand you, what if you are talking about me?” Believe me when I say, we are most definitely not talking about you. We are likely saying something about our hair, or the food we are excited to eat, a myriad of things, but not you. At least in my experience.
We have the privilege of being able to experience multiple languages here in the Denver metro area. Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Spanish, and Nepali for example. It’s exciting for people with the same language to gather and talk, and authentically be themselves. Language is one way to express our individuality and identity.
So today, I invite you to remain curious and seek ways to preserve what is unique to you in your mother language. There are over 6,000 languages spoken worldwide; be curious, my friend. We have to learn to honor our true native languages. Knowing my native language fills me with honor and wisdom from my ancestors. To know one of my native languages is one way to know my true self and where I come from. Native languages are sacred and hold our ancestor’s knowledge and power. Preserving our native language is to preserve culture and history.