I was a sophomore in high school. I only carried my book-bag by one strap because I felt like it made me fit in more than it actually did. When I talked to my sister, who I took multiple classes with before she graduated, I was the epitome of confidence, yet I could barely hold a conversation with anyone else. Maybe I hoped that my confidence in speaking to my sister would translate into confidence when talking to others, but of course, anxiety and the millions of thoughts swirling into my head–a myriad of conspiracy theories and self deprecations–never allowed it to work that way.
Growing up, I carried around a notebook with Spanish terms and words, and I was filled with pride when my mother told me how good my accent was–not gringa.
As a young kid, my mom’s side of the family would talk about secrets in Spanish to be sure the kids of the family couldn’t understand them. The secrets were usually pretty benign; preparations for a surprise birthday party, gossip about a much older cousin I’d never met, jokes that I probably wouldn’t understand even if they weren’t speaking Spanish, and probably shouldn’t.
But either way, I grew up mostly ignoring the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish even though there were times when it frustrated me not to know it. Young as I was, I hadn’t made any sort of connection to culture and identity the way that I do now. I was just a ten-year-old annoyed that I couldn’t stick my nose into other people’s business.
I took Spanish in high school for three years. At that point, I had forgotten about my notebook of Spanish terms and really only took the class because it was a graduation requirement. I had effectively lost my “authentic” accent when trying to speak Spanish, but that didn’t bother me. I didn’t expect to learn Spanish at that point, nor was I in any rush to.
My apathy towards learning the language that half my family speaks came back to haunt me. We were assigned a presentation, something to do with going on vacation or doing certain hobbies. I didn’t prepare. To this day, I can’t remember why. I do remember my sister warning me that a presentation wasn’t something you could just improvise when you have to give it in another language, but I didn’t listen. I really can’t say why.
It went exactly as expected. I didn’t only trip over my words every now and then, no. I had no idea what to say. I was frozen. I hadn’t prepared myself enough and had failed so terribly that I had to turn to my teacher for help just in translating the simplest of words to piece together some vague semblance of a few sentences. I don’t think anything I said made the slightest bit of sense, and I’m sure the class could see me quivering, hear my voice shaking. The longest few moments of my life had in reality only been about two, maybe three minutes.
I got a B on the presentation. Not because of any success on my part, I know, but because my teacher was a nice guy who must have pitied me, and the presentation itself was punishment enough. At a parent-teacher meeting weeks later, my teacher had informed my mother that public speaking wasn’t my strong suit.
I had never forgotten it. Not only because of the shame and embarrassment of having an infamous “presentation” disaster, which thereafter became one of my greatest fears, but because it felt to me like an exemplification of my own failure as a Puerto Rican.
I was most anxious throughout high school and towards the beginning of college. I averted my gaze when walking down the street or halls, afraid someone walking in the other direction would think I was looking at them weird or staring. I didn’t raise my hand to answer questions in class and would only ever speak if my grade was entirely dependent on it. It felt like the peels of laughter I could hear around me were always about me, and though looking back it seemed incredibly self-involved to believe that everyone around me was so focused on me, nothing could convince me that they weren’t.
I had taken one bad moment, one embarrassing blunder, and allowed it to color my view of everything about myself. I was not a true Puerto Rican. I was not really black. I had grown up mostly around white people, but I was not one of them either.
What did it even mean to be black, Hispanic, or both? Is it how you look? How you act? How you think? By being both, am I just as black and just as Hispanic, or not enough of either?
I grew up appearing “racially ambiguous.” I would meet people and mention in passing the fact that I was Puerto Rican, and they would always react with surprise. I would be just as surprised that they didn’t know from the beginning. Wasn’t it obvious?
I was always told I “acted white.” I never knew what it meant, but I did know, of course, that I wasn’t white and that I would never look white no matter how much I “acted” as if I was. And anyway, what was it about me that made me anymore “white” or any less “black” or “Hispanic” than anyone else? The way I talked? The fact that I liked video games? Can’t everyone like video games? How would someone’s hobbies make them whiter or blacker than everyone else?
I’m always aware of my race. When I walk into a store, I try to look as inconspicuous as possible, and there’s nothing I hate more than walking out without buying something. Will they think I’m stealing? I’m wearing black today. Do I look too mean because I’m not smiling? Do I look suspicious? Now I’m anxious. If I look anxious, they’ll think I’m stealing. Maybe I should just buy something…
I spent so much time wondering if I was worthy of speaking to my experience as either a black woman or a Puerto Rican woman. Sometimes I didn’t feel like either, or like I was pulled in the direction of one when I wanted to claim the experience of the other. The presentation killed my confidence because it made me feel like a pretender. What would a notebook of Spanish words and phrases do? Nothing. Why hadn’t I learned Spanish when I had the chance so I could’ve avoided the humiliation and the horrible feeling of vulnerability of failing so utterly in front of my peers? I didn’t know.
It wasn’t until I’d transferred to Gallatin that things began to change. Maybe it was my concentration, The Concept of Otherness in Speculative Fiction, which sought to learn the narratives that shape our perspectives of race. Maybe it was the pressure of being in small classes and the dependence of my grades on forcing myself to speak. Maybe it was the professors who gently pushed me to speak up in class and actually cared what I had to say.
I started getting more involved. I spoke up more in class. I reached out to professors and would meet with them outside of class. I stopped having “NPC energy,” where I’d only speak when spoken to. I even started giving presentations again, and I thankfully haven’t had a repeat of that moment over five years ago.
I still don’t speak Spanish fluently. I still sometimes avert my gaze or curse myself for awkward moments, and I still absolutely loathe making small talk. But I love getting to know people. I’m not afraid of being the first to speak up, and I can laugh at myself and my own failures instead of dwelling on it for weeks and wondering where I went wrong. I decided to post about the most embarrassing moment of my life because, at the end of the day, life’s too short to dwell, and my biggest regret is that I allowed something so small and (ultimately) meaningless to shape how I perceived myself.
I hope, if you read this, that you feel the same way, too.