I spent Saturday at the University Maryland (College Park) with Partners in Print (PNP), an organization under the umbrella of America Reads. PNP supports literacy at 18 schools, mostly in Prince George County, Maryland, by helping parents – many of whom don’t speak English as their first language – learn how to support their children’s emerging reading skills. Saturday was the culminating event for the mentors and their students. More than 140 students and 100 parents came for the day-long gathering.
My role for the day was to read Tia Isa Quiere Un Carro and to speak to volunteers and family attendees in a bilingual presentation.
Confession. It’s always a little strange for me to work bilingually because my English is simply better. I was born here. I studied here. Although we speak Spanish as home, I live about 75 percent of my life in English. That means that sometimes I’m stuck pecking for words or phrases in Spanish, frustrated between what I’m thinking and what I can say.
Turns out this gives me the same problem as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was recently interviewed by Jorge Ramos of Univision. He noticed her occasional lapses into English, and it was the subject of a lot of Twitter chat. Like the justice, I grew up speaking Spanish at home, and I have no accent when I speak it. Yes, I can read a newspaper and magazine no problem. I understand everything on Spanish language TV. I consider myself fully bicultural.
But could I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish and really grasp all the nuances? Doubtful. Can I say what I mean with the same skill and confidence that I do in English? Absolutely not.
This will be the same story for the children who attended Partners in Print, most likely. I remember an NPR story about how young Latinos are shaping the American landscape. According to the University of California researcher, in most immigrant families, the original language is lost by the third generation. It pains me to admit that’s pretty much how it has happened in my family. My mother, generation one in this country, speaks mostly Spanish. I (generation two) speak Spanish, but I’m better at English. My kids, generation three, speak a sort of hybrid of high school Spanish and the phrases they use with their grandmothers. I find that loss so painful for a family. When you can’t speak to your own grandparents, you lose something precious.
All of this was on my mind Saturday. I felt connected to the parents because they want to do the very best for their kids and give them a good shot at doing well in school, same as good parents everywhere. As I tripped over the phrase in Spanish for pointy tailfins (It’s alerones traseros puntiagudos: a mouthful, people), I thought of them sitting quietly at school meetings, for example. How frustrating to have more to say than what you can safely say correctly. It makes you shy, unsure.
As for the kids, these little Generation Two’s, like me, they came from West Africa, India, El Salvador, Guatemala and lots of other places. Already these first and second graders were chatting with me in snappy English skills that are developing nicely. I’m happy for them. It will make school and success easier.
But the question is, how can we keep them literate in two languages, proud in two cultures, and most important, connected to their families through language and story?
That Tía Isa Quiere Un Carro can play a small part is a happy thing for me.