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Title

Inside the Ivory Tower: I can speak Spanish here?

Reflecting on linguistic identities in academia.

February 9, 2017
 
 

Juan M. Gerardo is a Doctoral Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His interest is working with pre-service mathematics teachers and supporting their efforts to teach for equity and social justice. You can follow him on twitter @mrg9605.

 

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"Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity - I am my language. Until I can take pride in language, I cannot take pride in myself" (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 59)

 

In prior Gradhacker blog entries, authors have discussed a variety of experiences negotiating identities. Some have focused on the professional identity, others on developing an online professional identity. Others still have discussed personal tensions between parenting/family/graduate school and others still of their experiences as a person of color and as an international student. I would like to offer my experience of my “twin skin” to ethnic identity, my linguistics identity and, specifically, how graduate school helped me to “take pride in [my] language,” hence “pride in myself.”

 

“Spanish… the language which seemed to me… a private language, my family's language. To hear its sounds was to feel myself specially recognized as one of the family.” -Richard Rodriguez

 

My first language was Spanish. I was taught at home by my mom. When I enrolled in kindergarten, my dad made it very clear that I was not going to be taught in Spanish in school. I can’t quite remember what he said but I do remember that I accompanied him to the school office while he expressed his objection to their placing me in any Spanish-speaking classroom. He let them know that if I were to learn Spanish, that it would be at home.

 

This is exactly how the Spanish/English dichotomy was etched in me. Similar to Richard Rodriguez — granted I did not understand some of his controversial stances at the time I read his book in high school — Spanish was my “family” language. At home, my parents spoke Spanish although I’d commonly reply in English (yes it would annoy my mom). In the homes of ‘parientes’ like godparents and my uncle, Spanish was spoken. Lastly, when our family began to attend church, we attended service in Spanish. There was some connection, a sense of community with whom and where I spoke Spanish. Later, a fourth place was included: talking to my students’ parents.

 

As a teacher at Robert E. Peary Middle School, I was determined to speak Spanish with students and parents. I did not teach in Spanish but had side conversations with students and sometimes their Spanish was better than mine. When it was time for parent-teacher conferences, the parents were so appreciative that they could communicate with me with ease. Years later,  as a middle school substitute teacher, I was jarred when a Latino student asked me,

 

“Hey, Mr. G, why don’t you speak Spanish? Are you embarrassed of being Mexican?”

 

It was a diverse classroom of Black and Latinx students. I will also admit that I was having difficulty as a teacher with that class. During one of those moments when I was able to calm the class, this student asked me this question. I was shaken to my core. I know I had limited my use of Spanish with students, so as not to have the Black students feel excluded from my conversation with Latinx students — at least that is what I told myself. But this student was right. In the classroom with Latinx students, I had not spoken Spanish. Somehow, I had stopped attempting to talk to Latinx students with our “private” language, in our “family” language.  I can’t say that I changed my ways immediately, but that question left a lasting impression of when/where I spoke Spanish, was I somehow not taking “pride in my language” and therefore myself?

 

Fast forward to my Ed.D. experience at Loyola Marymount University. Along the way I met wonderful faculty at the Rossier School of Education who supported my goal of pursuing a doctorate. I did not remain at LMU to complete my degree (I am currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), but LMU faculty challenged me morally and ethically as well as academically.

 

I was a research assistant for the Center for Equity for English Learners and working with Magaly Lavadenz and Elvira Armas when I experienced a shock: they spoke SPANISH! In the hallway, in meetings, in their offices, with other faculty members: Spanish was spoken! I couldn’t believe it. I had primarily compartmentalized my usage of Spanish to home and church. Then there were moments in schools with Latinx students and their parents. This jarring experience was in contrast yet related to the question by that Latino middle school student, “Are you embarrassed of being Mexican?” The answer is a resounding No! Here, at an institution of higher education, an institution recognized as a Hispanic-serving institution, Latinx Ph.D. faculty speak Spanish! Finally, my “private” and “public” language  fused in my current and future professional setting.

 

This might seem trivial to some, or at least not as momentous as it seems to me. But this just might resonate with graduate students who have felt invisible, muted, or censored from expressing themselves in their “private” or “family” language.

 

My journey continues. And with the support of my current adviser, I am not separate from my research. Who I am, my culture, my language are integral parts of my academic identity. Here is hoping that you too have experienced or are experiencing your “I am my language” moment!

 

Readers, what have your experiences been with language identity as a graduate student? I’d greatly appreciate question, comments, concerns.


[Image from Flickr user David Stobbe and used under the Creative Commons Licence.]

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