“Seven fifty is your change. Thank you, ma’am.” The cashier says in a slightly bored tone, dropping the change into my palm. I grab the pack of beef jerky and turn to leave the convenience store, but a sign catches my eye and I pause. "You are in America now. Speak English" it reads. Above the words is a picture of Old Glory waving proudly. For an instant I imagine my friend Elisabet reading the sign. She has been here for six years and still struggles to understand the simplest English. She tries, she tries hard, but almost all of the people she knows are Salvadorian like her, so she has little chance to practice.
I’m not Hispanic. But sometimes I feel like I am. I work in a Hispanic restaurant, eat their food, and speak Spanish all day, four days a week. I don’t know how many times the people there have asked me in Spanish where I’m from; I guess they can’t pinpoint my accent. “I’m American.” I tell them in Spanish, “Born in Texas.”
They look at me in surprise, “But your parents are from Mexico or Honduras or something, right?”
“No, they are from here in Arkansas.”
“What? You mean they’re white?”
“Well… Yeah.” I say, not exactly sure of the term.
“How did you learn Spanish?”
“I studied it from books, from a teacher, and over the internet.”
It never fails to completely blow them away that I learned Spanish so well, even though I technically have no connection with anyone or anything south of the border. One question is always in their faces, though they rarely ask it: “Why did you care enough to learn good Spanish?”
In their minds white people in Arkansas are the ones who put up signs that say "You are in America now. Speak English." White people are the policemen who don’t care enough to work bilingually, the nurse who has to communicate through the six year old, and the teacher who can’t tell them about their child’s education needs. But, the ones who have been to the restaurant several times and watched me, sometimes comment about something else. “You always start in Spanish, even if the person is very likely to know English as well as Spanish. If English is the language you are fluent in, why don’t you speak that?”
I usually just shrug and say, “I like Spanish.” But there is a whole lot more to my reason than that. I do it because I watch the people that come in. I see their homesickness for El Salvador or Mexico or Honduras or wherever. I watch them run a finger over the map of Central America, buy a calling card and call family back home, stare longingly at the Salvadorian Flag on the wall. I hear them talking quietly in Spanish about Abuelita back home who made wonderful Atol de Elote and Tio Carlos that raised the tallest Maiz. How could I mess that up by making them speak English to me? I’d rather struggle in Spanish than make them struggle in English in the one oasis they have of home. Everyone has a right to create a piece of home. I used to frequent American Restaurants overseas, now I watch the Salvadorians frequent their Salvadorian Restaurant here. It’s a piece of home that connects them with the family they left behind.
Besides, shouldn’t we be telling them "You are in America now, so feel free to speak any language you want"? After all, most of my ancestors were immigrants. We can’t turn around and say “Well, my great-grandparents were fine if they wanted to speak German, but you and your Spanish can take a hike back to Mexico.” That would be completely dumb.
I love the people who come into the restaurant. I love it when they think I’m one of them. I love it when they know I’m not Hispanic and still include me as part of the happy group. I love hearing tales of El Salvador and the life they hope to make here. I mourn with them when they tell me of family they left behind, friends that were deported, relatives caught in gang life, or neighbors who are mistreated at work. So, convenience store owner, try learning Spanish – then you’ll see America.
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