This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Earlier this year, I visited El Salvador, a mountainous and beautiful little country nestled between Guatemala and Honduras. It was my first time visiting my parent’s birthplace, and it was also when I discovered how distant I am from my family’s culture.
I was on assignment for my college newspaper, documenting a delegation of students observing a referendum held by a local community. At the time, metal mining was threatening El Salvador’s environment and water reserves. It got to a point in 2010 when a government report revealed that only 2 percent of total surface water was classified as good for supporting aquatic life (with approximately the same amount being regarded as drinkable).
NGOs, organizations, and communities came together and held referendums in several locations, pressuring the government to take action. I witnessed the last referendum before El Salvador completely banned metal mining altogether. Between the talks with community leaders, activists, and academics, I began to deeply respect the Salvadoran people’s strong spirit of collaboration and community. I felt proud of my heritage and proud to be part of the culture. But the truth is since I grew up in Canada, I’m anything but Salvadoran.
I remember when I arrived at the San Salvador airport, I was greeted by a security officer who, upon seeing me, naturally began speaking a torrent of Spanish. "Sorry, man, no hablo español," I replied. And as I said it, he just kind of furrowed his brows in disappointment and walked away. Throughout the trip, moments like that kept happening until I realized I’m just as foreign as the white students I was documenting. It was a strange feeling, to belong and not belong, to be separated from your community on the basis of your upbringing. You feel left out.
But it’s not just that I couldn’t enjoy myself in El Salvador. I’ve had so many opportunities to really get to know my family better, but the language barrier was just too strong. Growing up, I couldn’t hold a conversation with my grandpa, and he spent his younger years traveling Central America as a luchador, a masked wrestler hustling money to feed my mom. Even today, I can’t have a beer with my uncle, and talk hours about what it was like growing up with my dad, living in a war-torn country, not knowing which day will be your last.
At school in London, Ontario, people always expected me to just know Spanish. Whenever I told people I was Latino, they would follow it up with "say something in Spanish!" Or in class whenever something remotely Latin American was brought up, the whole class would turn to me like I was an ambassador for everything Latin. In elementary school, my teacher singled me out in front of everybody and asked me to explain what Cinco de Mayo is. My dumb ass just shrugged and said, "No clue."
As a kid, it frustrated the hell out of me, but the older I got, the more I started to understand why I ended up the way I did. Eventually, my parents explained it to me.
When my parents immigrated to Canada in the 80s, they escaped a brutal civil war. For years, insurgencies, death squads, and hardline politics plagued El Salvador. The country is still dealing with the residual effects in the form of large-scale gangs and government corruption. It’s clear now why my parents were reluctant to revisit their home and why I never went growing up. To them, returning to El Salvador meant being reminded of the hardest, most traumatic years of their lives.
When they arrived in Ontario, my parents immediately began working and going to school. By the time they were my age (23), they had full-time jobs, three kids, a house, and two cars. They worked ungodly hours, which meant that they barely had time to see me and my siblings. I spent a lot of my younger years in daycares and with family friends, where I spoke mostly English. Annoyed by my growing inability to understand Spanish, my parents naturally started speaking more English until I was only fluent in that. At one point, a kindergarten teacher told my mom that it would be much easier if she spoke only English at home, so I wouldn’t get "confused" with speaking two languages.
But I honestly wish they kept speaking Spanish. And I really wish they didn’t let people get into their heads. I love my parents, though, and everything they’ve given me. I’m not mad at them. I’m mad at the world and how things happen. I know that they didn’t secretly scheme and decide "our kids will ONLY speak English!" No, it happened naturally. Give them a break, it’s Canada.
Regardless, I’ve learned how essential it is to guard one’s culture, to retain it and hold it close. Though, there are people out there who would disagree. There’s an argument in favor for a more homogenous culture, and there are few cases in America where this is true. Not too long ago, in Louisville, Kentucky, someone recorded a video of a Latina woman in a JCPenny being berated by a white woman for speaking Spanish instead of English. "Speak English," she said to her. "You’re in America. If you don’t know it, learn it."
And unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has also come out as a fervent supporter of unilingualism, thereby unleashing a whole demographic of people who yearn for an English-only speaking country. Canada, while purporting to be a proud multilingual country, undoubtedly harbors people who think the same way. Just last month there was a woman in Mississauga, Ontario, who refused to be treated by a doctor who wasn’t white and English-speaking, despite the fact that all the doctors spoke English.
On paper, Canada encourages and protects the languages of its immigrants. It’s written both in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the preamble to the Official Languages Act "that Canada should encourage the preservation of foreign languages and enhance their status and use." Canada’s history with languages, however, is harrowing beyond measure. The stories of residential schools and government initiatives to eradicate native culture points to a much different story. It’s only after many years that the real darkness of this country’s past has surfaced.
While it definitely sucks being unable to speak the same language as my relatives and family, I know it’s not the end of the world. Eventually, with enough practice, I’ll be able to speak Spanish and finally explore parts of my past that are barred off. But for the people who scoff and wince at others for not knowing their native tongue, just know that it’s much more complex than you might think.
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