There are days when I wonder what I was thinking when I figured that I could do fieldwork in Spain simply because I speak Spanish. Yesterday was one of those days. Of course, I had been here enough times to know that Castilian Spanish is very different from the varieties of Latin American and Latino-American hybrid Spanish spoken in the Americas: so different that it sounded, at first, to me, like rocks on a window. But I’ve lived and worked in several different Spanish-speaking communities—in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, with Mexicans and Central Americans in California and with Puerto Ricans in Hartford—and never had problems communicating or being understood, so I figured I was pretty adaptable. Also, I was coming to do research with Latino immigrants in Spain, so we would share a linguistic repertoire, right? Wrong. That has been one of my hardest lessons, and it’s amazing to me that after all my training in anthropology, it should have to be a lesson to me at all. But since coming to Spain I have lived the relationship between language and context and language and identity on a whole new level.
In my experience, Latin American immigrants who came to Spain as adults (in their 20s or older) still speak a variety of Latin American Spanish that is familiar and feels like home to me. Some are able to switch into Castilian Spanish if context requires; others consciously refuse to use the “vosotros” form and conjugations, claiming their own Spanish as part of their identity. But young immigrants, teenagers who came to this country as children or who were born here to immigrant parents, are a different story. Sometimes I feel I can’t understand them at all. When I speak to them, they look back at me with sympathy, confusion, blankness. The distance is frustrating, agonizing at times, and of course, totally to be expected. But I wasn’t aware of how hard I was working at these exchanges, or how much I was missing the ease of home, until yesterday afternoon when I facilitated a conversation via Skype video with a CT DREAMer activist and a group of Spanish teens who were primarily of Latin American immigrant backgrounds. As the young Mexican immigrant DREAMer in Connecticut addressed the group in Spanish, I found myself translating occasionally, not only words she said in English, but words she said in Spanish that I knew to be Americanized. Her Spanish was music to my ears. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions I would feel at hearing her words in that space. As she spoke of the struggles of young undocumented immigrants in the United States, her language and her way of expressing herself—things so familiar to me now seen out of context—reminded me how far I was from home.
It is the irony of transnational connections that they can be profoundly affirming to the migrant and dislocating at the same time. Affirming because they are a reminder that ‘I do belong somewhere!’, but dislocating because, once you shut off the camera, ‘I’m not there now. I’m here where I don’t belong.’ As I write this I can’t help but think of all the immigrants I have been talking to who communicate with their families back in Latin America through a video camera. Isn’t it a marvelous technology that allows this to happen? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a camera, and you’re still somewhere you don’t belong.