Stuttering in a Latino Family Is the Absolute Worst — Especially When Learning Spanish
“Why don’t you know how to speak Spanish yet?”
“How can you be Latino and not speak Spanish?”
“You really need to get more in touch with your culture.”
For many of us, growing up Latino in America is rife with contradiction. The very same parents who made their way to the United States in search of a better life are often the first to scold their children for not knowing more about where they came from. The same parents who refused to teach their children Spanish — to give them a more authentically “American” upbringing — are often the first to complain about them not being able to speak it.
The same can be said of pretty much any family of minorities who travel to the United States for one reason or another. But there’s something about Latin America’s proximity to the US (let’s call it the “so close but so far” effect) that makes American life feel tangible. Something you could taste and feel and touch if only you were closer to the invisible line that divides one country from another.
There’s a lot that we can bring with us on that journey. Our customs, our cuisines, our faiths, our sense of community. But there’s nothing that ties us to each other quite like our languages. Our ability to communicate on our terms is a gift. The beauty of language is something that can only be given. Once it’s yours, it can’t be taken away.
That is, of course, unless you have a stutter.
Years after my parents stopped using Spanish as a way to talk about me while I was in the room, I decided it was time for me to take matters into my own hands and learn a language I should have probably known by that point. I took Spanish classes, practiced at home with flashcards, and asked my mother — a translator — to teach me in her spare time.
Before long, I started to feel like fluency was within reach. I wasn’t referencing the flashcards as much. My grades in Spanish class started to improve. I even thought about deleting Duolingo from my phone because I knew that, soon enough, I wouldn’t need it anymore.
But here’s the thing about talking to your Latino family with a stutter. In English, the worst you’ll get is a snarky comment, a little laugh. Maybe even a pair of sympathetic eyes patiently waiting for you to get the words out. People are, for the most part, kind and understanding. Or maybe it’s just that, after a while, you become numb to the jokes and the comments.
“Did you forget your name?”
“Are you sure about that?”
Or the dreaded, “Can you say that again?”
Whatever the case may be, at least it’s tolerable.
Switching over to Spanish is a completely different story. A laugh of empathy becomes a snicker of pity. A patient stare becomes a scornful gaze. Every stumble, start, stop, and stutter becomes a constant reminder of the disconnect between you and the people who made it possible for you to be here in the first place.
The hardest part about having a stutter isn’t the inability to speak. It’s how quickly your brain and body are ready to betray you. To reveal what most of us try to bury as deeply as possible within ourselves: fear. The fear of rejection, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Basically, all of the feelings that come with trying to speak a different language to someone who doesn’t think of that language as different at all.
The worst of it comes from family members you only see around the holidays. The people who remember you stuttering as a kid but maybe don’t know where you’re at now or what you sound like. For the most part, making casual conversation, catching up and swapping stories, isn’t too difficult. You’re with people you love in a situation that is, for the most part, comfortable. For a few moments, you might forget you have a stutter at all.
But when it comes time to practice your newfound ability to speak a language you’ve heard your entire life, the pressure is on and the stutter comes back in full force, like all the progress you’ve made was for nothing. To them, it’s not the stutter holding you back. It’s you.
For reasons that you may never fully comprehend or understand, they blame themselves like they could have done more to help you maintain that connection. Or maybe it’s that, on some level, they feel rejected and that your inability to speak Spanish reflects a larger disregard for where you came from. Regardless, nobody wants to feel responsible for someone else’s shortcomings.
So eventually they end up just blaming you.
But you know what? It’s okay. There’s a part of you that understands. In fact, you understand it so well it ends up making you want it more. Seeing your parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins howling in laughter, unbridled joy, recounting an old story, or talking about a friend who’s passed. You never knew what they were saying, but you knew it was good. And you knew you wanted in.
But here you are, trying to tell a simple story or have a pleasant exchange and every single syllable is agony. I said before that the worst part of having a stutter isn’t the inability to speak, but rather the inability to hide the fear behind the words you’re trying to say. That might not be true. The worst part might be the frustration. Looking into someone’s expectant eyes, knowing exactly what you want to say, imagining yourself saying it, all the while waiting for one single sound to escape from between your lips.
Eventually, you just switch back to English. It was an experiment. A failed one, at that. You kick yourself for not practicing more in the mirror the night before and promise yourself you’ll do better next year. You can’t help but feel discouraged even as you remind yourself that it’s really not your fault.
And so, you go back to listening from afar. Picking out the words you do understand and wondering about the ones you don’t. Filling in the blanks in your head and captivated by the rhythm, the music of language. The same way you have every year.
And there’s something comfortable about that.