A Language Barrier

Latino Beat Editor Christina Lopez takes a personal look at growing up Hispanic in North Carolina.

by Christina Lopez
Latino Beat Editor

I never looked at my family as interracial. I was brought up like many families, in a warm house with two brothers, a mom and a dad. I went to Catholic elementary school and perceived my life to be what many would deem as normal.
We would take family vacations, and growing up I never thought about the logistics of things. My dad’s family was from Puerto Rico and resided in the heart of New York, while my mom’s family grew up in good old small- town North Carolina.

Dad would tell stories of his childhood days jumping off rooftops of buildings and playing stickball in the streets while dodging cars. Mom’s stories were more laid-back, involving raising the chickens and pigs on the farm and growing vegetables in the garden.
Mom’s heritage rooted from Germany, and my dad’s heritage was strictly Spanish. I remember as a child those famous phrases my grandfather would use to make us laugh with his broken English.
“No te Creo” he would respond to the typical questions everyone would ask.
“I don’t believe you,” my dad would translate after grandfather’s response.
Grandfather always had a way of using his broken English to his advantage. He would joke at grocery stores and have us translate for him, which was just speaking slower English. I laugh because to me that was normal.
I remember getting embarrassed at check-out lines in the city because Grandma refused to learn English and cashiers would get angry because she didn’t understand.
But for me the language barrier was normal. We would run to Dad during vacation, and he would translate everything for us. When we settled back here in North Carolina, my little bit of Spanish was quickly forgotten and our speech went back to solid English. Growing up Dad would try to teach us the language growing up but we never were interested in learning.
After all, the only time we needed our second language was when we would go to New York for vacation. As it was, we already got picked on for having tanned skin year-round. My brother and I would come up with every excuse in the book to not be considered Spanish. We weren’t really sure why we didn’t want to be that way, but we just knew that at Sacred Heart Catholic School we were the only ones who weren’t fair-skinned and with bright eyes.
Now after fast-forwarding to the present, I think of how much more sense everything makes. I never understood why Mom hated visiting Dad’s family, and I never understood why we were picked on for having that caramel tone to our complexion.
But it all makes sense now. This weekend I caught myself translating at the grocery store for a lady who couldn’t speak English, and I admire the children I see in society today who break down that language barrier. They speak their language on public radio; they are the ones who translate for their parents in line at the grocery stores, and they are the ones who admire where they came from.
My whole life I blamed my lack of culture on the language barrier, but as I look around it wasn’t the barrier at all- it was my fear of not being accepted. I hated the jokes that followed and often went home crying because of the malicious “go back to where you came from” connotations. I’m sure there are those children who are none the wiser and those evil jokes still exist. But after starting college and looking back on my past and my culture I learned to break down the language barrier that kept our family apart, knowing that it could easily be broken, and then I learned Spanish.

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