“El problema es el idioma” (“The problem is the language”). I have heard that phrase so many times in different contexts that it frustrates me and makes me suspicious of whether that is the true problem or just an excuse. In the US: “I can’t interact with Latinos in my city (or even my church) because I don’t speak Spanish.” In Mexico: “they can’t reintegrate because they don’t speak Spanish.”
Yet instead of discrediting those who point to language as the principal issue, perhaps I should recognize the truth in what they say. I wrote over a year ago about a migrant who I met in Nogales who did not speak Spanish, but not until my current journey have I begun to discover the limits of not being able to speak the country’s language.
For US citizen schoolchildren whose families are now in Mexico, the lack of Spanish can be crippling. Parents could not always ensure that their children learn Spanish while living in an English-dominant environment. Middle school students arrive in Mexico without being able to speak or write in Spanish. There are essentially no resources to support them as they learn the language. The situation is similar to children arriving in the US without speaking English, but without the benefit of supportive ESL programs.
The problem is not even limited to children. One worker in a marginalized neighborhood in the city told me the story of a youth who had live most of his life in the US and after his deportation arrived in Guadalajara with almost no Spanish ability. Recently, he panicked when he was wrongfully detained for drug possession and had no way to communicate with the police or understand what was happening.
Subtle differences also make life difficult for returnees, such as children from the US who address everyone with the informal second person conjugation “tú” because Spanish speakers in the US make fewer distinctions of formality. That casual form of address deeply offends teachers or elders in the community. Or the case of Nancy, a DREAMer deported before Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She mentioned during a presentation in Tijuana that she can still always be identified by her accented Spanish.
The power of the language barrier is also reflected by the pervasive desire to learn English. I give weekly English classes to the sisters , have helped with a US-supported English program for high schoolers, and offered to have conversational English sessions with my colleagues who need to improve their fluency. It is not out of a love of languages that so many are interested in learning. It is a simple recognition of the utility of the language. That is a benefit that return and deported youth who grew up in the US have – and why even those who never finished high school can get a relatively well-paying job (in Mexican terms) in call centers, although working conditions are difficult.
Perhaps my own devaluing of the threat of the language barrier comes from personal prejudice. Since I am for all practical purposes bilingual, I can reap the benefits of speaking English and suffer none of the inhibitions of not speaking Spanish. But for most people, language is a true challenge. As I learn to acknowledge that fact, the more worrisome question is: how, then, do we overcome it?
I have decided to take a small step: as Mexican readership of my blog has increased, I will now be publishing my entries in both English and Spanish.