I was 28 when somebody finally popped the question.
“Do. You. Speak. English?” a middle-aged American tourist asked me (Ever. So. Slowly.) as she peered down into my (apparently) Mexican-looking face.
It was 1982, my third day in Puerta Vallarta, and I was sitting on the steaming-hot sidewalk outside my hotel while my friend John was upstairs, familiarizing himself with the ins and outs --well, mostly outs-- of Montezuma’s revenge.
For the record, I am Italian-American. Always have been. Always will be. I grew up in Queens, New York, graduated from Holy Cross High School in Flushing, rooted for the Mets at what used to be Shea Stadium and played the ponies at what still is Aqueduct Raceway.
So, yes, I speak the King’s English (with a Queens accent) and was amused to have one of my fellow Americans presume otherwise -- even if her tone of voice left something to be desired.
Thinking back, I recall being somewhat put off by the experience. Not by what she said, but by how she said it -- as if she were talking to a dog. Or, a child. Or, someone she would chat up for directions but never ask over for café con leche.
To her, I was a scruffy Mexican, sitting on the sidewalk which, I suppose, shouldn’t have surprised me too much. After all, unlike most of the guests at my hotel, I had dark eyes and a bushy black mustache. And, after three days in the sun, my olive complexion had turned a rich-reddish brown.
Anyway: “Yeah, shaw,” I replied, in answer to her question. [Translation: Yes. Sure.] I then pointed her to where she needed to go and continued sitting there in the sun, waiting for John to exit the juan.
Over the next few days, several more Americans asked me if spoke English and I had some fun with that, telling one poor soul: “Si, señor. de rain en Spain, stay mainly en la plain....”
Perhaps more jarring, though, were the times when I was approached by locals who assumed I was Mexican and began talking to me --in a quick barrage of vowels, double consonants and tildes-- before I was able to make them understand that I didn’t understand what they were talking about.
This, after EIGHT years of Spanish in junior high, high school and college. Unfortunately, another eight years went by before I finally ventured to a Spanish-speaking country. And, by then, vocabulary words only seemed to come back to me in dribs and drabs.
“Helado!” I yelled, later that day, from the back seat of a taxi. Not because I needed some, but because I saw it on a sign and suddenly remembered what it meant.
But, deciphering entire sentences, delivered at the speed of luz, was totally out of the question.
Two years later, in Puerto Rico, I had the same experience. Same eyes, same mustache, same tan, same question: “Do you speak...”
Yes. Si. Oui.
Because of this, though, I became increasingly sensitive to the Americans, seemingly all around me, who screamed at natives to “Speak English!” --as if the entire world had to conform to their needs.
But, I suppose this has always been the American way of doing things. As you may remember, even poor E.T. had to learn English, and he didn’t even come from this solar system.
After many years of traveling, the faces of the screamed-at would stick in my memory. Ordered to “Speak English!” some would shake, wither and come close to tears, while others became indignant and began rattling off a string of expletives which required no translation.
As a bilingual Latina friend told me recently, the enmity that often accompanies “Speak English!” is “just absurd, because I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be understood. And the screaming is just ridiculous, as if suddenly you will understand a word that you didn’t understand when it was spoken in a normal tone of voice.”
If anything, this practice, so common here at home and endemic abroad, makes ME feel absurd --a feeling that was exacerbated in 1995 when I took my first trip to Holland. I met a doctor there (we remain good friends), who spoke six languages fluently, could “get by” in another two, and was in the process of studying another. (In the pre-euro era, he was also “fluent” in six currencies, which I found even more amazing.)
In fairness, though, he lived in Amsterdam and was often in the company of French, German and English friends. He also has several Swedish, Spanish and Russian acquaintances, so the multi-lingual muscles he developed in college and graduate school got frequent workouts, without him ever having to leave his country.
As for me: Even after eight years of Spanish, I was pretty much lost in space when I finally travelled abroad. Helado came back to me, suddenly. And, thanks to my ALM (Audio Lingual Method) books, I knew "my llamo was Guillermo," and that "Maria was en la biblioteca." In other words, I didn’t know my burro from my elbow.
Incidentally, I met my first girlfriend in Spanish class. Juliet Adolfo was beautiful, half Puerto Rican, half Filipino. I was 11. She was 12. (She was also my first cougar.) And, amazingly, Juliet spoke English AND Spanish at home!
One day, when our Spanish teacher, Mrs. Shapiro, tried to engage Juliet in a non-English conversation --presumably to impress upon all of us that speaking in a foreign tongue was, indeed, possible-- Juliet peppered the dialogue with expressions like “Nah” and other hybrids of speech now referred to as Spanglish.
As you might imagine, this infuriated Mrs. Shapiro, who then screamed --SCREAMED-- at Juliet something I’m guessing many Latinos in the United States long to hear from gringos:
Sometimes, you can’t win for losing.
Bill Ervolino is a columnist and features writer at The Record (Bergen County) and author of "Some Kind of Wiseguy."