Well before my daughter Azalea was born, I knew I would speak to her exclusively in Spanish. Spanish is my native tongue, the gateway to the rich Colombian traditions that are Azalea’s by birthright — arepas at breakfast, natilla at Christmas, cumbia in the background while preparing dinner, Cien años de soledad on the bookshelf. Beyond the emotional aspects of speaking to Azalea in Spanish, study after study have shown the many cognitive benefits of bilingualism. In addition, I am a Spanish professor and my wife is a polyglot who has taught both Spanish and English at the college level: who better to create a home environment conducive to learning multiple languages? Yet as I listen with excitement to Azalea’s first words — mama in English, papá in Spanish — the social landscape outside our window grows increasingly volatile, and I’m confronted with a realization that proves alternately disheartening and motivating: raising a bilingual child in the US is invariably a political act.
The ramifications of my decision to speak Spanish to Azalea first occurred to me one afternoon while reading her ¿Dices mu? (Do you say moo?), a book intended to introduce infants to farm animal sounds in Spanish. In the book, a young blonde boy sets out in search of cows. He knows that cows say mu, so he asks each animal he encounters on his quest, ¿dices mu?, only to hear a succession of negative replies accompanied by neighs, whinnies, and other barnyard sounds he’s presumably hearing for the first time. During our ninth or tenth consecutive reading that day, it struck me that the book’s protagonist never asks the animals he meets “¿Eres vaca?” (“Are you a cow?”). The boy’s principal identifying criterion isn’t name or category but, in a sense, language. The boy doesn’t set out with a mental image of what a cow looks like, nor does he associate the animal with a concrete task or behavior such as milk production. His expedition is strictly aural. The cow is its language.
Azalea and I have read ¿Dices mu? hundreds of times. As a literary scholar who now spends more time reading children’s books than academic texts, I can’t help analyzing it. Azalea still gives me the same bemused looks as I muddle through pig and owl sounds, but for me the act of reading ¿Dices mu? with her has acquired a new level of significance. By hearing various animal sounds for the first time, the boy in the book is ostensibly introduced to the reality of difference: there are multiple languages, and distinct groups associated with each. The interrogative “¿dices mu?” is thus a question as much about diversity as about language. And, given the profound ethnic and racial fissures in our society that only seem to deepen with each passing day, I can’t read the book without thinking about the ways in which Azalea will someday experience difference, not as a white blonde boy but as a bicultural, bilingual girl. As recently as a few months ago, migrant children, many of whom look like Azalea, were separated from their parents and held in detention centers. In a country where calls for racial and economic justice are still met with hatred and violence, how will my daughter’s identification with language and culture impact her life?
In the exhausted haze of new fatherhood, I oscillate between two contrasting interpretations of the book. One reading considers “¿dices mu?” a symbol of intellectual curiosity, of a desire to better understand the world around us: I’ve never seen someone like you before, and I know that certain groups speak a particular language, might you also speak that language? The boy learns that dogs say guau and ducks say cuac, and then he goes on his way; there’s no judgment, neither in his question nor in his reaction. The farm he walks through is composed of a variety of languages that coexist peacefully, each adding something unique to the collective whole. This is what I intended bilingualism to be for Azalea, an opportunity to both learn and teach, to seek out diversity and to share her own cultural experiences with people who believe that difference enriches society — the kind of people who stopped reading this essay midway through the first paragraph to look up arepa and natilla and thought, I’d like to try that.
Yet confrontations like that between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park last year remind us that even people who consider themselves tolerant and progressive can quickly resort to racist stereotypes, not to speak of those who spew hateful rhetoric without need for dissimulation, who shared in our last president’s disdain for DACA and his xenophobic treatment of immigrants as “rapists” and “animals.” In such a social climate, a question about native language can also function as an accusation. In the book, each animal tells the boy the respective language it speaks but doesn’t help him find cows. The animals seemingly live in their own, linguistically isolated worlds, with no clear sense of unity. This is my greatest fear, that in a milieu of acute political polarization and rising instances of hate crimes perpetrated against Latinos, such as the tragic 2019 El Paso shooting, Azalea’s bilingualism will be met with exclusion, even violence.
Before Azalea entered my life, I would read about the shrinking percentage of Hispanics in the US who speak Spanish with an air of indignant self-righteousness. How could parents be so irresponsible, I often thought, to not teach their children Spanish, to deprive them not just of a vital part of their culture but of a highly marketable skill? Now that I am a father, I understand how hasty and unfair I was in my criticism. Given this country’s unfortunate history of discrimination and violence against Latinos based on the language they speak, can parents be censured for deciding against speaking Spanish at home if it means ensuring their children are considered sufficiently “assimilated” by those who may otherwise cause them harm? Do the cognitive benefits of bilingualism outweigh the potential emotional scars of racism, scars like those I still bear from the intolerance and bullying I experienced growing up as the son of Latino immigrants? Am I doing more harm than good by speaking Spanish to my daughter? Should I teach her moo, leave mu aside?
It’s beautiful watching my wife lovingly read to Azalea in English. Yet while she can teach our daughter colors, shapes, animals without thinking about broader implications, I can’t engage in those same activities in my native tongue without a certain degree of anxiety and trepidation. But for every moment of doubt, there’s an image of a Black Lives Matter mural, a video of a multiethnic, multigenerational rally in support of DREAMers, comforting affirmations that difference is still valued, that the struggle for social justice is unwavering. I have been a part of that fight, through my writing, my teaching, my advocacy, and now through the simple act of speaking Spanish to my daughter. It’s unfair that teaching a language to a child should be a political act fraught with complex emotions, but the resentment I feel in that realization also serves as a constant reminder of the need to strive for change. Speaking to Azalea in Spanish is my contribution toward creating a society of solidarity and inclusion for her generation, one in which she will feel equally proud to say moo and mu.
This essay was first published in The Good Men Project.
Bryan Betancur is an assistant professor of Spanish at Bronx Community College and freelance journalist who writes on issues related to Hispanic political identity and representation. In addition to academic and journalistic pieces, he has published poetry in TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics and creative nonfiction in iōLit.