Let me count the ways.
1) I grew up in Texas, and grocery shopping happened at Fiesta a lot more often than it happened at Kroger. One of my early memories is of standing in the aisle at Fiesta and hearing two small dark passionate women chatter away very fast in a language I didn’t know. It sounded so mysterious! Dramatic! I wanted to know what they were saying. I wanted to know what they were so excited about. Were they comparing generic brands of corn flour, or was this a real life soap opera episode without the subtitles? The curiosity killed me! (But I came back.)
I imagined up entire conversations for strangers who looked like Hispanic versions of my own grandmother, and imagined understanding every word without ever showing that I understood. They would never guess! I would be like a spy! (I have always loved the idea of being a spy. Age and reflection has brought me to realize it would be very uncomfortable to actually be a spy, but I still pretend sometimes.)
2) Everything in Texas has Spanish subtitles, from the signs in grocery store aisles to the warning signs on the beach telling stupid tourists not to go out and drown themselves. On one vacation my dad pointed one of these signs out to me. “Danger!” it warned. “Peligros!”
“What do you think a peligro is?” he asked me. “They must be dangerous. We should find out what they look like so one doesn’t take us by surprise.”
After some discussion it was agreed that peligros are large migratory birds, about the same size as an albatross, but with huge red beaks and terrible claws. They may also breathe fire; I don’t recall. But even now, whenever I think of the beach, I remember the importance of keeping an eye out for peligros.
3) When I was thirteen or so I read a book – an introduction to Spanish, I think – that mentioned how many million people in the world speak Spanish. I remember looking at that number. It seemed vast. Huge. Crushing.
All those people will never be my friend, I thought, because I won’t be able to understand them, and they won’t be able to understand me!
(I understand that it takes a lot more than a common language or even a common homeland to make friends. I’m certainly not friends with every Texan. But it helps.)
Being an impatient person even then, my very next thought was, It’ll be a lot faster for me to learn Spanish than to wait for all of them to learn English. And then we’ll be able to be friends after all!
And then I cheered up and started learning how to count. Uno amigo, dos amigos, tres amigos…
4) One hot summer day, my family was on a bike ride in the Texas Hill Country (great training territory for athletes, great scenic country for rambling drives, but horrible terrain for beginning bicyclists, because there is no such thing as flat). My dad and I were laboring up a steep hill. I told him to go on without me; I was going to pull over and quietly expire in the roadside prickly pear cactus.
“No!” he said. “Don’t stop now! We’re going to Mamacitas after this! Think of the fajitas!”
“Fajitas,” I said weakly, squinting through the heat waves.
“Fajitas!” he cried.
And then we began to chant together: “Fa! He! Tas! Fa! He! Tas!”
I live to this day, so clearly it was an effective rallying cry.
5) Speaking of fajitas: tortillas, guacamole, refried beans and rice, chips and salsa, queso, quesadillas, tamales, and chorizo and eggs. And Mexican chocolate!
6) Whenever you are feeling loud and colorful, there is nothing like exclaiming some Spanish phrase at the top of your lungs to express your feelings. It doesn’t even have to be relevant; if it’s Spanish, and as long as you roll all your Rs, you will achieve High Drama near instantly.
“Que hora es!”
7) I just like it, okay? It’s a beautiful language, spoken (in my experience) by warm and friendly people. I may never be as fluent as I once dreamed of in the aisles of Fiesta, but I will always love Spanish.
Me llamo Raquel, y soy de Tejas. ¿Como se llama?