I wish I knew how to speak Spanish. Not only would it be incredibly useful in my current job here at Greenlining, I can think of hundreds of occasions in the past when it would have helped. But I don’t speak Spanish for precisely one reason: prejudice.
In 6th grade – the last year of grade school in my district – we’d learned a smattering of Spanish via a teacher who came into our class once a week, Señora Rosa. Starting middle school the next year (1968, for anyone who’s counting – but please don’t) offered me my first chance to take a foreign language class every day. With a small head start on Spanish it seemed logical to continue rather than switch to French, which was the other alternative my school offered.
My father talked me out of it. He said, in essence,
“Nothing important happens in Mexico or South America. Learning Spanish is a waste.”
Bear in mind that we lived in Los Angeles County, on a street called La Tijera Blvd. The nearest other major streets were La Cienega Blvd., Centinela Ave. and La Brea Ave. Yet my dad could see no value in being able to speak Spanish. He believed that the world’s centers of thought, science and culture resided in the U.S. and northern Europe, where people mostly spoke English, French or German. Given the intensity of the Cold War back then, he’d probably have counted Russian as significant, too.
My parents did not consider themselves bigots, and they certainly were not haters. But prejudice doesn’t always involve hate, and it’s often unconscious.
My dad had an Ivy League education: Cornell University, followed by Harvard Medical School. While I don’t know what courses he took, I’d bet money his education never exposed him to Latin American literature or culture. And he surely believed that if something was important, the prestigious schools he attended would have taught it to him. That implicates at least two layers of prejudice: On the part of his professors, for ignoring the intellectual and cultural output of big chunks of the world, and his own, for simply accepting that the (white, almost all male) faculty knew what was important.
My dad was a smart man who could have looked beyond what he was taught and probed for the underlying prejudice. He didn’t, just like most Americans don’t, then or now. As a result – not having the intellectual wherewithal at age 11 to argue with him – I don’t speak Spanish.
I took French. And after seven years of it in middle school, high school and college, I got pretty good – able to read nearly anything, so long as I kept an English-French dictionary handy in order to look up the occasional unfamiliar word.
Forty years later, I remember almost none of it, having had virtually no chance after graduation to use the French I’d learned.
I wish I could speak Spanish.
Bruce Mirken is Greenlining’s Media Relations Director. Follow him on Twitter.