For Non-Spanish Speakers

Please excuse my unannounced blog hiatus—I started a new job and moved into a new place. Hopefully it won’t compromise my safety to mention that my days off are Thursday and Friday. Expect the follow-up posts I promised then. I hadn’t planned to write but dinner has moved me in unforeseeable ways.

Tonight I strolled down the street to my favorite Mexican, cheap-eats place for some pozole and enchiladas. Each summer I try to establish myself as a regular. Ordering the soup helps me stand out from the rest of the clientele. It also means I can sit down and eat right away while the rest of my meal bakes in the oven. About half way through the bowl my ears perk up and shoulders cringe forward.

“Um, quiero un más de queso,” I heard a shrill, female voice say. In high school my French language teacher, M. Labouiere used to say that bad French made his ears bleed. Not being fluent in Spanish myself, I can only guess how the man behind the counter’s ears felt. Even still, I shuddered. She continued. Whenever asked if she wanted to include some ingredient or other in her bean and cheese burrito extra grande, she had the gall to answer “sí” or “no” in a painful accent that mimicked, I guess, what Americans must think the Spanish sounds like. Since working at my new job, I’ve let on that I might understand more Spanish than I claim to and have been challenged thus. Just today Juan tried to get me to show off my [sadly lacking] skills when I butt into a conversation he and one of the workers were having in Spanish about the World Cup. Neither knew that Korea and Togo were matched in the morning game. My boss, Stephen, who spent a year in Quito while in college, thinks it shameful that my last name is Mexican and that I don’t speak Spanish. I may stick to Latin and Old English despite my so-called heritage. I was raised Boston Irish, after all.

But this shrill female, she didn’t know when to stop. Her trouble ordering clearly couldn’t’ve been her fault, so finally she checked, “Excuse me, are you speaking Spanish or Brazilian?” By now blood ceased to flow out of ears. Instead it was boiling within. I almost spoke up. It’s Portuguese, not Brazilian. Keep your sixteenth century, Catholic super powers straight.

Five minutes later, she was happy, burrito in hand. Her boyfriend didn’t speak much. He responded a simple and slightly embarrassed “sí,” I think for solidarity. The customer next in line asked for only a little bit of cheese on his quesadilla. I wonder it was surprising to learn that the man behind the counter was not only fluent in either Spanish or Brazilian but also fully conversant in American.

Now I know what my madrileña blockmate Verena means when she says that Americans speaking Spanish are among the world’s most obnoxious people. And it struck right here, in Cambridge, USA.

2 thoughts on “For Non-Spanish Speakers

  1. dude, 100% agreed. Though, i should explain that as someone who thinks she can speak spanish, there must be a subcategory of slightly less-offensive Americans out there.

    but yeah, i have drunken memories of being in Felipe’s with drunken sorority-esque girls shrilling up their best “mexican”…you know, things like ” yo quiero carne with bean-os, si?”

    offensive as all get-out. i say we take em all out back old-yeller-style…

  2. I think what bothers me most is that she thought she was helping out. Condescension is probably at its worst when it mistakes itself for altruism: especially if it’s also incompetent.

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