Serendipity

Meet Mariana, Director of Development at SLE. 

Serendipity (n): the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident

Before our executive director, Amelia, encouraged me to apply for the Director of Development position, I had never even heard of the Student Language Exchange. The second she told me about SLE, I knew I wanted to get more involved. Not because it was a great opportunity or because Amelia is an incredibly persuasive human being— though trust me, she is— but because the very mission of SLE nailed the identity crisis I’ve been having for years.

tumblr_inline_mwket7jOI91s7s0qtI was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but my family made a permanent move to Miami when I was just three years old. Upon first arriving in Miami, I was comforted to find that Hispanic people were an overwhelming majority. Grocery stores were filled to the brim with familiar ethnic goodies. The DMV, gas stations, and all kinds of places we frequented were made up entirely of people who did not speak a word of English. I decided to cling to what I perceived as the last remaining strand of my home country: my Spanish language. For almost a year, I refused to even try to learn English. Thinking I was clever, I created my own make-shift English language which consisted of me saying Spanish words but in an English accent. To this day, my families still enjoys reminding me about my hard-headedness by employing some of my words in their day-to-day language such as “yah-vays” in place of keys.

Obviously, I did learn English. In fact, I was only in ESOL for three months in kindergarten. Amusing as it may be now; three year old me made a really tough decision. Miami is probably one of the only cities in the United States where you can get away with never learning English, but I did. It was much more than just learning a language though. It was the first step in what my Colombian relatives would call my “Americanization.” Despite the fact that I only speak Spanish at home and I took many, many Spanish courses throughout my schooling including in writing and literature, I never acquired the melodic accent associated with Colombian Spanish. When I visit Colombia, my relatives warn me never to speak to taxi drivers because they will be able to tell from my neutral accent that I am a tourist and will charge me a higher fare. My passport, legal identification, and birth certificate all say otherwise— yet the way I speak Spanish says to the taxi drivers, and to my relatives, that I am not one of them.

Though initially I felt incredibly rejected, I’ve come to realize that who I am isn’t contingent upon where I live or how I speak. I don’t have to live in Colombia and have an accent to be Colombian. All it means is that because I do live in the United States, I have to make more of an effort to stay in tune with my culture and language, especially on College Hill. Part of how I’ve chosen to do that actually is as a Spanish language tutor. Not only do I have a setting where I have to speak Spanish, but I get to share a small part of my culture with someone who’s really excited to learn about it.

Not to generalize the experience, but I imagine that at least part of my experience resonates with many of our fellows, the key difference being that Spanish is one of the most taken languages in the United States while all the languages taught by our fellows are not even offered at Brown or at many other higher learning institutions. Spanish is just as important and beautiful as Bengali, Shanghainese, Bulgarian, and all of the world’s languages. Every person deserves the right to celebrate their language and culture.

This Thursday, I’ll have been working with the Student Language Exchange for a month. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to admit it’s changed me: the way I think, the way I see language, the way I see my own experiences. SLE is the part of me I didn’t know I had.

So I guess the short answer to how I got involved is… serendipity.

 


 

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Mariana is a sophomore at Brown University, studying sociology. She hopes to delve more into the issues of language and second language acquisition, and how both collectively shape identity.