Everyone in the wonderful Latino spectrum is reminded in different ways of the fact that they’re Latino. Though these reminders come in different forms to everyone, they seem to come to some of us very often. In my case it happens almost daily because of my beautiful, thick accent.
After eight long years in New York City I can read and write in English just as well as in Spanish, my vocabulary is pretty broad, I can hold educated conversations or just joke around in Brooklyn-ish with my cousins. My accent, on the other hand, just seems to get thicker. My experience has been similar to our writer Adriana Villavicencio’s mom in that people start treating me differently as soon as they hear me speak.
Some people in this country assume that having an accent is an indicator that you’re a hard-working-low-wage-job immigrant, who is also less educated and less truthful than the rest of the population. This tendency to evaluate people’s character and intelligence based on our language biases is known as Language Prejudice. A good example of it happens when a perfectly fluid individual is offered translating services or printed forms in Spanish. Or that pathetic Arizona measure to install accent monitors in classrooms.
Also, thanks to this prejudice, people can make REALLY stupid comments like: “You’re so smart for having an accent” or “I am usually annoyed by people with accents but you’re so nice.” Lately, I am not sure whether to respond “Thank you” or “Screw you” to this because if they had not assumed I was dumb and evil, in the first place, they would not be so amused by my brains and character afterwards.
I must confess that not all comments/reactions towards an accent are negative. A person with an accent can make other Latinos in the room feel more comfortable or be linked to positive Latino stereotypes (hard working, amicable, funny). Sometimes I even hear compliments (?) on how my accent is cute or sexy. Apparently, having an accent can be an asset in some cases, for example if you’re a hot media figure who fits the stereo type like Sofia Vergara or Penelope Cruz.
There’s a lot more to a person than the way they pronounce (or mispronounce) words. Having learned a language, other than the native, is already a good sign of a person’s linguistic abilities. The fact that “we’re in America now” does not mean we have to sound exactly like everyone else because there are over 20 varieties of what is considered American English. Therefore there’s no such thing as speaking “American.” That someone has an accent does not mean they don’t speak English, or that they don’t understand what you’re saying.
We must expect to be treated with respect at all times, regardless of the fact that we’re Latinos or immigrants, or have an accent. My language abilities are only a small part of who I am, and like the rest of you, I too speak English.