Some Words Feel Truer in Spanish

My earliest relationship with language was defined by rules. As an immigrant who came to this country from Peru at age 4, I spent half of my days in kindergarten occupied with learning the rules of the English language. There was the tricky inconsistency of pronunciation to navigate and, once I learned to speak it, the challenge of translating what I’d learned into reading skills.

At home, my mom would often create games to help my sister and me preserve our Spanish and improve our grammar. Driving around our neighborhood in Miami, she’d point at a traffic light, hold up four fingers and say, “Se-ma-fo-roon which syllable do you put the accent?”

Each language had its defined space: English in school, Spanish at home. But as my parents became more fluent (and my sister and I more dominant) in English, the boundaries became blurred. Being bilingual empowered us to break barriers beyond the rules and definitions attached to words. Some things were simply untranslatable, because they spoke to this new space we were living in — within, between and around language. We were making a new home here, same as so many immigrants who end up shaping language as much as it shapes us.

It became evident as the phrase “Cómo se dice?” or “How do you say?” became a constant in my home. Sometimes, it’d be my parents who asked, “How do you say” followed by a word like “sobremesa” or “ganas.” It seemed simple enough in theory, but proved nearly impossible for us to translate without elaborating using full sentences or phrases. After all, to have a word to describe a long conversation that keeps you at the table and extends a meal, you’d have to value the concept enough to name it. Some ideas are so embedded in Latin American and Spanish cultures that they exist implicitly. Of course “ganas” can be something you feel but also give, and be at once more tame yet more powerful than “desire.” (If you know, you know.)

Other times, it’d be my sister and I who were curious about a word’s Spanish counterpart. Was there really no differentiating in Spanish between the fingers (dedos) on our hands, and those on our feet we call toes? When we wanted to say we were excited about something, the word “emocionada” seemed to fall short of capturing our specific, well, emotion. Sometimes we would blank on a word. But sometimes, we would find that the perfect word isn’t necessarily in the language we’re speaking.

What I’m describing, of course, has its own word: code switching. The act of shifting from one language or dialect to another, particularly based on social context, is often framed as something that so-called minorities do to fit into more mainstream spaces. It’s true that code switching can be a form of assimilation, a way of shielding ourselves from the prejudices rooted in racism, classism and xenophobia that can arise when we freely express our culture and language in spaces not designed to embrace them. But what I seldom see discussed is how code switching isn’t solely a reactionary response to feeling unwelcome. Within our own communities, it can signal comfort and belonging.

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