“Enter.”

In Spain, of course, they speak Spanish. And I vaguely remember that that seemed strange for the first few minutes after I landed in Barcelona, because where I grew up, speaking Spanish meant certain things about the speaker. Generally it meant aged 25-50, a darker, more exotic look, people who had a little, or a lot, less than I did. There were exceptions, of course, and I’m not even sure how conscious I was of these generalities until I left.

Still, it was strange to be in Spain and hear everyone speaking Spanish – from the Chinese immigrants working in the convenience stores, to the kids playing outside (who otherwise looked just like American kids back home), to the old woman walking around with her cane and her furs, looking down her strongly European nose at everyone who passed her. It was different – but it felt somehow right, and after an hour or so, I completely forgot about the old connotations. Spanish after all is a living language, spoken by entire societies – their rich, their poor, their young, their old – and in the United States right now, our perception of Spanish-speakers has come out incredibly skewed and unnatural.

On my journey home, I went through Madrid first, and then Miami. The proportions of English speakers to Spanish speakers changed gradually, and the flight over was about half and half. This itinerary might have softened the linguistic transition for me, but it also brought me back face to face with the language’s reception in my own country.

The flight landed and the airport workers descended on us as we disembarked, herding us into different lines while shouting at us – in English, mostly, with one or two Spanish words thrown in, as a condescending afterthought, so mispronounced and devoid of context that they couldn’t have been helpful. “Go to the left for customs, you’ll have to show your passport… pasaportay! After that is baggage claim, those of you with connecting flights need to pick up your luggage too… equipajay!”

They hadn’t given us the customs forms on our flight, so I had to go up to the counter to get mine. There I found another worker standing imperiously over a tall counter, talking to a short and nervous looking woman standing below. “You need an address in the United States,” she was saying again and again. “Direcciones. Direcciones. You need to write down the address next time you travel. The officer needs to see an address. Direcciones.” She was getting more and more frustrated, speaking more and more loudly, as if that would help. I started filling out my own form, but stopped when the worker kept asking her who was coming to meet her, and she wasn’t understanding at all. I stopped for a moment to translate – it was such basic stuff, just, “Who is coming to meet you? Your daughter? Can you give me your daughter’s name? Your daughter’s address?” You’d think the customs officers in MIAMI would be trained to handle that.

I finally got in line myself and was called up to the passport check. I had an American passport, and obviously understood English, but I said few words, and it was noisy, and I have a Spanish-looking first name. I guess that was all it took. Every other time I’ve gone through customs, they’ve stamped my passport and handed it back saying, sometimes even with a smile, “welcome home.” And after a long journey, that feels… good.

But this time was different. The officer never smiled. Before stamping anything, he gave me one more long look. Then he thrust the passport back into my hands, gestured in the direction of the exit, and muttered, “Entre.” – “Enter.”

The implications made me want to throw up.

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Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 14:58  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Really insightful piece here, with a lot of relevance to current issues. And as always, fabulous writing. You made me see the Spanish-speaking characters and hear the lady in the airport. Smart mix of short and long paragraphs and sentences, too.

  2. Outstanding, Miranda. Best of luck with your current adventure and the ever-elusive quest for ‘home’.


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