“So, do you speak Spanish?”
It’s a question people always ask eventually. Sometimes within seconds of learning my surname, sometimes after months, or even years of knowing each other. It never fails to make me squirm because I’m embarrassed to admit the truth: I don’t know my family’s native language. And until recently, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to learn it.
My father came to Australia in the 1970s as a refugee, fleeing the regime of military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Growing up, whenever we visited the Chilean side of my family, the conversation would mostly take place in rapid Spanish, and my siblings and I grew used to not understanding it. As the native speaker, my dad could have been the one to teach us, but he travelled constantly for work and we didn’t see him very often. My mum had been told that as the mother, helping us learn Spanish was her responsibility, but as it wasn’t her first language and she was busy raising us as a mostly single parent so it wasn’t exactly a priority.
What little of the language I knew as a kid, I picked up from the most random places: songs by Ricky Martin and Shakira; a dusty phrasebook I found in our living room bookcase; my 'Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?' computer game. (Strangely, the opportunity to ask anyone if they had seen a mysterious woman in red never came up.) My pitiful vocabulary wasn’t much use in communicating with or impressing my family. Especially when my younger cousins were all bilingual. Living more than an hour away and having an Anglo-Australian mum, my siblings and I were already the odd ones out. The language barrier just added to the disconnection I felt from my Chilean heritage.
What little of the language I knew as a kid, I picked up from the most random places: songs by Ricky Martin and Shakira; a dusty phrasebook I found in our living room bookcase; my Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? computer game.
This sense of disconnection increased after my parents’ divorce and as complicated family dynamics meant I spent less and less time with my South American relatives. In Year 11 and 12, I had the option of taking beginner’s Spanish, but chose to continue studying French instead. For this conscientious goody-goody, turning away from Spanish felt like a kind of rebellion. Why should I study something just because of my background? Also, I was good at French and I worried that if I struggled with Spanish, it would be a blow to my pride that I would never come back from. Better not to try at all, than to try and be terrible.
I ended up taking Spanish as an elective years later at uni but by this time, I felt so separate from my Chilean heritage that I don’t think I even mentioned this bit of trivia to my father. If I had, could we have bonded? I don’t think so — we became estranged not long after this — but a part of me will always wonder.
This sense of disconnection increased after my parents’ divorce and as complicated family dynamics meant I spent less and less time with my South American relatives.
Being half-Chilean is rarely relevant in my daily life, except for when strangers ask every exotic-looking person’s favourite question: “No, where are you really from?” Although people ask if I speak Spanish, it’s never a problem that I don’t. The one exception to this was on my very first morning at a new job. My Spanish-speaking boss and I had to give a tour to two visiting officials from Mexico. Their faces lit up when they heard my surname and one of them spoke to me in Spanish straight away. I hated having to disappoint them, and spent the next three hours smiling and nodding as the others conversed fluently. Listening to people speaking Spanish but not being able to understand it brought me right back to the confused powerlessness I remembered from childhood.
I’m turning 30 this year, and this milestone has had me thinking a lot about who I am and who I want to be. I’ve decided I want to be able to say yes when someone asks me if I speak Spanish. Not to impress relatives or any future colleagues, but for my own sense of self. When I was a kid, my ability to teach myself was limited, but now there are countless resources available online. I’ve started small: spending a few minutes a day on language app Duolingo. It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever become fluent, but that doesn’t matter. My Chilean heritage is part of who I am, and while I’ve struggled with that because of family relationships, learning Spanish has become my way of connecting with this part of my identity.
Amanda Diaz is a freelance writer.