El Centro

Laine Higgins, Editor-in-Chief

This summer I volunteered for the Siembra pre-school program at El Centro, a Hispanic community center on Chicago Avenue.  I walked into the lobby on my first day expecting to say “hola” to the receptionist, but instead I was greeted with a “hello.”

Throughout my first week the same thing kept happening to me: everyone took one look at me and resorted to whatever English they knew. Even the bilingual four-year-old children addressed me in English instead of the Spanish they used with the rest of their classmates.

I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, and my vocabulary skills reach their limit when consoling children who have collided on the playground. But I still know Spanish and I certainly know how to say “hola.”

What surprised me the most about this phenomenon was that it was one of the first times I no longer had assumed competence in the situation. Perhaps it was because I was a racial minority within the community. Perhaps it can be traced to American attitude that immigrants and minorities must assimilate and “speak American.”

But what does “speaking American” even mean? Some Americans like to describe the U.S. as a melting pot; others take the salad bowl approach. In both metaphors, there is not one exclusive way of speaking, no one English that prevails. Each region of the U.S. has its own dialect of “American” that manifests itself in the lilt of the speakers and even the very language they speak.

This summer, my peers at El Centro assumed than my “American” was merely English. The fact that people could hold this assumption about me hadn’t crossed my mind when I signed up to volunteer in May. I too am a victim of assumption in this situation, as I had assumed that I would speak only in Spanish for the duration of the summer.

After struggling with having to prove myself to the staff and the children over and over again, I became comfortable with greeting the receptionist with “hello” and conversing in English with the bilingual four-year-olds. I finally was comfortable because I realized that their “American” wasn’t just Spanish, and their English was just as well-intentioned as my “hola” on the first day.

Written for the September In-Depth spread, “(87) Days of Summer,” featuring students’ poetry and prose on experiences over summer vacation that changed their perspective.