These were the words of a woman in back of me on line at a grocery store in Puerto Rico.
My husband and I were spending two months on the island, the coldest two months of the year in Massachusetts where we live, happy to get away and enjoy the warmth and beauty of my parents’ birthplace. On that day, the store – in a heavily tourist area near San Juan – had customers who were a mix of native Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans visiting from the mainland, and native U.S. Whites and African Americans. I had just said something to my husband. The woman asked me, in a surprised voice, “Did you just speak to him in Spanish?”
When I told her yes, I had, she said, “I’m so proud of you!” I guess she thought I was a White woman. I told her I was Puerto Rican and that she didn’t have to be so proud of me because Spanish was, after all, my first language.
When she looked unsure of what I had said, I followed up by saying, “And please don’t tell me ‘but you don’t look Puerto Rican,’ because I’m 100 percent Puerto Rican.”
Shrugging, still unconvinced, she asked, “And what about your husband?”
“He’s from Spain,” I said.
“Really?”, the surprise still registering on her face. “Oh, I thought you were both European.”
“Well,” I said, “he is European. Spain is in Europe.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess. But I was thinking more of England.”
(Why do Americans equate England with Europe? It’s always been a mystery to me).
“England,” I informed her, “is in some ways the least European country because it’s actually separated from the rest of Europe.” I didn’t want to confuse her so I didn’t even mention that Great Britain had recently voted to exit the European community.
“But Spain,” I continued, “is smack in the heart of Europe.”
“Well, yes, you’re right there,” she conceded.
And that was my encounter in Puerto Rico, the land of my heritage, concerning identity, language, and ethnicity.
It’s not that this kind of remark was unprecedented. People have frequently told me, “But you don’t look Puerto Rican,” expecting, I guess, a brown- (but never white- or black-) skinned individual. (Again, I often wonder why people like this think they know what all Puerto Ricans should look like. Where do they get their ideas? Is there a “standard-issue” Puerto Rican? )
And why was this woman “so proud” of me? Because I’m fluent in a language other than English in the most multilingual nation in the world? Actually, on this we could probably both agree: native English-speaking Americans are what Terrell Bell, a former Secretary of Education, famously called “monolingual bumpkins.” Mr. Bell was in the cabinet of President Ronald Reagan, no less, a president who was staunchly anti-bilingual education and a proponent of “English Only.” Reagan was once quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It is absolutely wrong and against the American concept to have a bilingual education program that is now openly, admittedly, dedicated to preserving their native language and never getting them adequate in English so they can go out into the job market” (as quoted in Baker, 2011, p. 189). He made this awkwardly phrased statement with no sense of irony (what is the “American concept” and who are the “they” to which he was referring?). Well, after all, perhaps he was right: Maybe Americans first need to master English before they can take on other languages.
Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th ed.