“De donde venis?” the man asked me. I looked up at his pale face, into his dark eyes, and even at the lengths of his curly hair, searching for clues as to what he’d said. I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself by asking him to repeat what he’d said. I paused, scanning the array of colorful tents set up across the park, the bohemian vendors selling scarves, leather goods, and other artisanal products. Everyone else seemed to be interacting so effortlessly, and suddenly I wanted to avoid human contact at all costs. No handmade, purple-beaded bracelet was worth it.
“De donde sos vos?” the man asked again, slowly. He must have detected my imploding panic. “Soy de los Estados Unidos,” I told him nervously. I am from the United States. Obviously.
I was 22 years old and had been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a week. After working at the mall for over a year as a make-up artist, hoarding every dollar made and sacrificing nights of youthful nonsense, I was finally there. I’d bought a one-way ticket, and there was no turning back; I was going to become fluent. Little did I suspect, moving to Buenos Aires was going to be a months-long, in-your-face lesson not only about how little Spanish I’d learned in high school and college, but also about how little I knew of the world.
See, I am half Caucasian and half Mexican, but I wasn’t taught Spanish growing up. And my half-Mexican heritage doesn’t mean that my mother grew up in Mexico. She was born and raised in the United States just like my white father. My maternal grandparents also shared this history, but lived for periods of time in Guanajuato and Hidalgo. Grandma and grandpa spoke Spanish. Mom and her eight siblings spoke Spanish to varying degrees. But growing up, my siblings and I? Not at all, unless a vocabulary list of about 10 random words counts as actual linguistic skills.
Having freshly arrived in South America, I wasn’t aware of what it was like to make it on your own in a fast-paced city while possessing the linguistic capabilities of a four-year-old. It was 2004 and consumerism reigned in the everyday hustle, women stayed desirable with a diet of cigarettes and mate, kids huffed paint in the subte stairwells, and petty theft was commonplace. Fashion had strangely reverted back to the 1980s, with all the cool kids sporting loud colors, cropped t-shirts, and horrendous mullets that eventually grew on me. The political influences from Peron to Menem hung heavy alongside decades-past civil wars, genocide, and los desaparecidos. And with the recent crash of the peso, it was understandable why no one would want to help some gringa from George W. Bush’s country as she took advantage of their economic distress. To top it off, everyone and their abuela owned a dog and no one bothered to clean the sidewalks of canine mierda. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t step in shit more often in Argentina than I had before.
Prior to Buenos Aires, I thought becoming fluent would be a steady climb to success. I’d moved to the place with the most distinct Spanish dialect because the accent sounded sexy and it was the rumored Paris of South America. I should’ve just gone full-force with the stupidity and moved to rural Catalonia to learn Catalan. But I couldn’t have anticipated the sleepless nights when strange words collided in my head, the days when everything from catching the right bus to putting together a simple present perfect sentence to blocking out catcalls of “Che, nena, dame un beso…” felt like I was fighting an invisible war that no one else knew about. Everything I’d learned previously didn’t count. Cacahuates were maní; piña was ananá, faldas were polleras, water came with gas, and condones were preservativos and actual preservatives were conservativos. So you had to be really careful about asking if there were any preservatives in your food. Learning Spanish- or Castellano, rather- in Argentina was the single most challenging thing I’d ever done.
But, as I’ve always been crazy stubborn and prone to obsessiveness, I would not give up. I avoided other English-speaking travelers. I read compulsively in Spanish and took a class on the works of Jorge Luis Borges, posting the definitions of unfamiliar words all over my walls. I spent countless hours chatting with my Porteña language partner in cafes and filled my ears with the music of Julieta Venegas, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Piojos, Cafe Tacuba, Molotov, and any other Spanish Rock I could get my hands on.
I started dancing in cigarette-filled boliches, or clubs, with friends who were native Spanish speakers, learning clumsily to salsa and cumbia along the way. I never did learn to tango, except for the one time a waiter in La Boca asked me to dance, albeit briefly. Remembering the benefits of alcohol’s false confidence, I took to drinking destornilladores (screw drivers) until I didn’t care anymore if I misunderstood a joke or if my subpar Spanish made me sound like an idiot. My existence became one infatuated blur of studying, conversing, and partying, soaking in as much Latin American nightlife and Spanish as I possibly could.
After eight months in South America, aside from living in Argentina, I’d backpacked through five other countries- Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador- taking only buses, trains, and a ferry. I’d seen mind-blowing UNESCO sites (hello, Machu Picchu), contemplated seas of penguins, fields of llamas, and unearthly places where the clouds hung low and fluffy like apple trees and no amount of coca leaves could save me from altitude sickness. I also witnessed living standards worse than I’d ever imagined, slept in sagging, bug-ridden “beds,” stood helplessly captivated by children drinking mud water alongside skeletal horses, and wondered why I’d deserved to have been so sheltered and never to have known real poverty. Becoming fluent in Spanish was not only a process of language acquisition and expanding my social dynamics, but also an active experience of deep humility and gratitude.
It’s now been over 11 years since I first arrived in Buenos Aires, and this was perhaps the most significant of the many adventures I’ve had since. Becoming fluent in my first foreign language was one of the most difficult, transformative, humiliating, and fulfilling challenges I’ve ever placed upon myself. So when you find out that I speak Spanish, please don’t just assume that it was bestowed upon me because I’m half Mexican. The story couldn’t ever be that simple.