English or Spanish?

Jackie, which language did you learn first: English or Spanish?

I learned both at the same time.

Ok, but, when it was time to go to college, did you still struggle with your English?

I was going to give you a moment to let that sink in, but I won’t. I know the majority of my readers, therefore I know that many of you speak/read/write in Spanish as well. So I wouldn’t be surprised if any of you have ever heard:

Oh, you write so well!

You don’t even have an accent!

You are so well-spoken!

But I don’t get it, how can you learn both at the same time?

The individual who asked me such an absurdity is college-educated, only a few years my junior. We are peers. And this peer cannot fathom the fact that I am proficient in two languages and don’t have a hard time with it. I must be frank: I was insulted at first. Me? ESL? But I am an English major! I could read and write in English and Spanish since I was four! One of my poems was featured in a creative writing anthology! Me? Then I started to wonder if my English was choppy. I talk so fast and I stutter a lot, that must be it!

Then I got pissed. Fuck whatever accent or lack of accent that I might have. Fuck what I know or how many fill-in-the-English-word test problems I can do or how many A’s I got on the fucking hundreds of essays I have written. My coworker implied that every person who speaks Spanish is stupid. They are incapable of processing words. They will struggle in high school and college and work because their parents taught them Spanish. Not just Spanish-speakers. But Creole and Japanese and French and anything not English. English English English. I love English but it is not a way to gauge someone’s intelligence. I love English but you can live your life just fine without it.

I take most things with a grain of salt and approach many experiences in my life with humor, and that is how I tell this story. But when I sit and think about it – really think about it – my blood boils. She insulted my mother and father, my sisters and family. She insulted so many of my friends and the students that I help. That person insulted my brethren. She insulted all of my people whose tongues hold orchestras of Spanish sounds. Since that day I have a grudge, and I need to get it out out OUT DAMNED SPOT OUT before I annihilate all of her preconceived notions with a few palabras en ingles. Because we know I could.

She is no better than me and I no better than she. Apparently, however, I am the only one of the two that thought so.



I have the spoonful of rice halfway to my mouth when I hear, “Exactamente de que se graduo usted?” 

Welp.  Here we go again.  It’s been over a month since I graduated college and my father is once again asking me what my degree is in.  What did you study?  English literature?

“So you got a degree in reading?” he asks, a jar of figs in his hand. 

I try to make a joke:  “No me vio con un libro siempre en la mano?” Didn’t you always see a book in my hand?

“It’s just that when people ask me what you studied or what you do, I don’t know what to say.”

“Usually English majors become teachers…”


Can’t I enjoy my meal in peace?  This is the point in our conversations where his voice starts to get loud and his face turns red. 

“You see, I’m an electrician.  When people ask what I do, I say ‘electricity.’  When you ask the head of a company, he says he’s a lawyer.  He runs the company, sure, but he also has a profession.  Entiende?”

I try to think of something funny as I feel the blood rise to my face.  He always has a way of getting under my skin in a real bad way.    

“So tell me,” he asks as he chews on a round fig.  “What is it that you want to do?”  These types of conversations never end well, especially when my mother tries to save me.

“There are lots of things she could do.  Jackie, answer him.  What do you do?” Her hands are clasped under her chin.  She tries to keep her face calm, but I see a darting nervousness starting to brew in her eyes.

“Nada.  I haven’t been able to find a job.”

“Ah.  Ya.”  Oh.  Ok

For the first time ever, I cannot get mad.  This is one conversation which will not end in insults or raised voices or temper tantrums.  I have nothing to say.  I just chew my food as my parents talk about so and so and this and that.  The man’s got a very valid question – what the heck do I do?  It only made sense to me to pursue a degree in English three years ago.  It’s what I loved to do.  It’s what I was good at.  I wasn’t thinking about a career or unemployment.  I wasn’t thinking business proposal writing versus a teacher residency.  I didn’t give a second thought to certifications or years of experience required.  My degree, as it stands alone, means nothing given the track I have landed on – education. 

My father, his brevas, and his booming voice make my mind travel to a thought which nearly breaks my heart – I went to school for nothing.  I let that possibility sink in.  But wait, Jacqueline Canola.  Hold on a minute, girl!

“I know!” I say, interrupting their conversation.  “I went to school to be an author.”

In the middle of my lunch, at three in the afternoon, on September 24, 2013, in the midst of my father’s impromptu interrogation and angst at not being able to find a job now and wearing my Northeastern University sweatpants, the most fundamental truth of my existence had escaped me.  I repeat it again, so that he knows.  And so that I know.

“I am going to be a writer.”

“Eso si,” he answers with a head nod.  That’s more like it