What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Jessica Hernandez.
When the results were announced on election night, I cried. I cried because I was frightened, not for myself but for my brown-skinned, accented immigrant husband. The campaign season’s anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric rang in my ears. I was terrified of the violence I thought it might inspire.
My family, all Caucasian, said I was being paranoid. “He’s legal. He’ll be fine.”
I am dubious because here’s the thing: nowhere on my husband’s body does a sign read, “I’m supposed to be here.” He has no yellow star or tattoo with his green card number. (I hope to God he’s never forced to get one). He looks like what he is: a bald Hispanic man with a goatee.
But because of that, there will always be people who question his right to be here in the U.S. with his wife and his children. People who shout hate at him on street corners won’t ask for his passport card first. They won’t ask him his immigration status. They’ll just look at him and assume he doesn’t belong.
For the most part, things have been fine since the election. We make sure our taillights work and our license tags are up to date. We never speed or run stoplights. We do everything in our power not to make him a target.
But “fine” for him is never going to look like “fine” for me. Fine for him means getting followed around in stores. It means people talking louder to him because he has an accent. It means folks asking what part of Mexico he’s from. (He’s from Spain.) It means people asking to talk to someone who “speaks English” when businesses call on the phone.
Fine for my husband means 1,000 little headaches and prejudices that as a White person, I never experience. If I weren’t married to him, I’d never know these things are a part of life for some Americans.
Most of these are the things he faces, the silent battles he fights. But one thing affects me directly – the way people react when we speak Spanish in public. While the Hispanic community where we live is decent sized, we aren’t well connected with Spanish (of Spain) culture where we live. In fact, my husband is perhaps the only Spanish immigrant in our county.
My husband’s language is the one thing that connects him to his homeland. It’s the language of his family – the tios and abuela that my children only know over Skype and on the phone. And that’s a problem. Because more and more, people look at my husband with hostility when he speaks to our bilingual children in Spanish.
But this isn’t the hardest thing he or others deal with. It’s a drop in the bucket for Dreamers facing deportation to countries they’ve never known. It’s a tiny thing – I know that. But it’s the hardest one for me because of the impact it has our children.
Our kids are young, but they see those looks. They see them and they know what they mean. They know that where we live, Spanish is different and “other” and undesirable. So they don’t want to speak it.
Two weeks ago, my daughter had a raging meltdown. That in itself is not unusual – she’s the kind of kid who feels things deeply. But what set this tantrum apart was its cause. She was furious at my husband for speaking Spanish to her.
“I hate Spanish!” she screamed. “Why can’t you just speak English?”
It broke my heart. It broke my heart that she feels like half of who she is is unacceptable. It broke my heart that her Spanish heritage is something to be ashamed of or hide. And it broke my heart that these are the messages people give her on a daily, sometimes hourly.
Sometimes people send those messages without thinking – a subtle change in attitude, a raised eyebrow, a change of tone. And sometimes, as with the pardon of a sheriff convicted of illegally targeting Hispanics or the DACA repeal, people send those messages clearly and intentionally.
Even though I vote and contact my elected officials, I know can’t change the big things. I can’t force people to be okay with minorities and immigrants, confront the idea of privilege, or overturn a presidential pardon.
But I can do my damnedest to help my kids be proud of their Hispanic heritage. I’m awful at speaking Spanish, but I’m doing it anyhow.
When we watch Little Mermaid, I switch the language so Ariel speaks the same way they do. When we sing together, we sing “Los Pollitos Dicen” as well as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” In words and in actions, I try to tell my children over and over how lucky they are to be bilingual and how beautiful Spanish culture is.
When the time comes to register them for school, I’ll mark them as bilingual, even though I know I’ll have to fight the rest of my life to keep them from unnecessary ESL testing.
Most of all, I’ll keep shouting into the void that anti-immigrant rhetoric hurts more people than illegal immigrants. It wounds every person with an accent or more melanin in their skin, regardless of immigration status. It scares children, both Dreamers and not. And it saddens me, a white lady from Republican farm country who married an immigrant and just wants her kids to be proud of who they are.
My culture of origin shouldn’t be the only one that counts in our family. It shouldn’t be the only one that counts, period.