Writing a book about Frida Kahlo inspired this Latina to finally speak Spanish
I spent nine months on the first draft of my first book, What would Frida do? A guide to living boldly (released October 20). Between countless late nights typing on my keyboard and weekends reading books about his art, I also spent time in Mexico City. It was important for me to visit Kahlo’s home, La Casa Azul, and explore his neighborhood of Coyoacán. See the world through Frida’s eyes.
Adding to the canon some incredible books that already exist about the iconic Mexican artist is pretty daunting. But as a Latina, I felt an added responsibility to carry the torch of Kahlo’s legacy and carry it well. As I read the revised version of my book last spring, I was in awe of having Finished this.
Then came the email from my book publicist.
“Forgot to ask if you speak Spanish and feel comfortable doing interviews in Spanish?” ” she wrote. Before I even finished reading his note, I felt a knot in my chest. It was the same tangle of anxiety that settles in my throat whenever a family member or stranger speaks to me in Spanish. I had flashbacks of being in Mexico City, rousing with embarrassment as I struggled to explain that I was writing a book about Frida … but couldn’t speak her native language fluently.
I typed my publicist hungry: “Unfortunately, I’m not comfortable enough with my Spanish to do interviews.
For many years throughout my career I have wondered if this would ever happen. My mom is Puerto Rican, the daughter of parents who moved from the island to the Bronx, New York in the 1950s. When my mom finally married my black American dad and they moved to the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, where no one they knew spoke Spanish, my mother didn’t have much reason to speak the language in our home. My older brother, younger sister and I grew up understanding it much better than we spoke it; when we went to my grandparents, they spoke to us in spanish and we answered in english.
It wasn’t a big deal until I got older. I remember trying to say the name of a Spanish song to a friend in college and feeling the heat rise in my face as he burst out laughing. “Aren’t you supposed to be Puerto Rican?” He said, doubled over. This was just one of many similar encounters over the years, often punctuated with “Oh, so you’re not. really Puerto Rican ”or“ How did your mother not teach you Spanish? Over time, my inability to speak the language started to look less of a circumstance and more of deep insecurity – a glowing red X on my identity as a Latina.
Thanks to social media and my time as a journalist, I discovered that I am far from alone. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2015, only 73% of Latinos spoke Spanish at home, and in 2017, 22% of Latinos in the United States did not speak Spanish, period. For the record, I have found this to be especially common among Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans, which makes sense given that, respectively, they are the number one and two largest groups of Latinos in the United States. . It is also important to note Puerto Rico’s status as an American Colony, which means that American culture and English are more heavily influenced there than in many other places in Latin America.
Research suggests that one of the common reasons language does not cross generations is assimilation; often immigrant families just want their children to fit in and not be discriminated against, so they will only speak English at home. This leads to many second and third generation Americans, like me, who identify as Latinx and take pride in their heritage, but are not fluent in the language of their ancestors.
Yet after responding to my publicist that afternoon, I felt defeated. I knew I wasn’t alone in my struggles with Spanish, but that didn’t make them any easier to admit. Then my eyes flashed on my iPhone’s lock screen, a photo of the vibrant yellow cover of What would Frida do? Suddenly it hit me: Why didn’t I ask myself … what would Frida do? I had written a guide to the daring life, inspired by one of the most daring women in history. It was time to take my own advice.
“Frida’s fearlessness in the face of her flaws can inspire us to overcome our own impostor syndrome, whether we feel inadequate in the boardroom or in a relationship,” I wrote in a chapter on trust. “I can imagine she would tell us – even if we don’t quite believe it ourselves – to always be our own greatest cheerleaders.” After rereading these lines, I was ready to stop complaining about not speaking Spanish, and finally to do something about it.
“What would Frida do?” “
After a few hours of research, I came across Fluenz, a program that helps students learn languages through organized weeklong immersions in cities like Mexico City and Barcelona. During the pandemic, founder Sonia Gil and her team decided to recreate the process typically in person with a six-week virtual immersion. I was reluctant to commit to three classes a week while working remotely, but decided that if I wanted to be serious about it, I had to be all out.
During my initial assessment, I took a deep breath to overcome my usual shyness and explained to my coaching team, all based in Mexico City but from various Latin American countries, that my Spanish was intermediate, despite the fact that I am Puerto Rican. . But Gil was quick to reassure me.
“It’s a story I hear from many of my students: “I am proud of my heritage and of who I am, and I understand [Spanish] better than I can speak it, but I want to be able to talk without hesitation and feel good, ”says Gil. After many years of teaching, she knows that “learning a language puts you in one of the most vulnerable positions you can be in”.
But, she adds, the only way to learn a language is to do just that: learn it. “If you’re ashamed of yourself because you have an accent or are going to look like a toddler, that’s okay. You are will sound like a toddler! But eventually, that little one will grow up to be a confident adult. It just takes time.
Accepting that when I opened my mouth I could look like a babbling baby was much easier said than done; after all, it took an entire book about a resilient, unapologetic woman to be brave enough to face my fear head-on. But I decided to accept the challenge. Three times a week after work, I opened a Zoom session with the Fluenz team. Between grammar and reading comprehension lessons in Spanish, my teachers chatted with me. They were asking me questions about my life, my work, my previous trips and how I was coping with the pandemic, all in Spanish.
For the first few weeks, I felt the familiar anxiety build up when I stumbled over words or tried to remember basic sentences. However, whenever I was silent I tried to remember my leading question: What would Frida do? I imagined myself in the future, talking to a reporter on the phone or maybe even on TV, confidently speaking about my book in crisp, clear Spanish. Then I took a deep breath and … spoke. I started to think less and less as I slipped into the conversation.
One evening after a Friday night class, I got into an Uber to meet a friend for an al fresco dinner. The driver immediately started chatting and we casually chatted. It took a few minutes for me to realize we were speaking Spanish and it came naturally to me. For the first time, I didn’t think too much and didn’t feel my cheeks flush. When there was a pause in the conversation he would turn the radio on, hum as he blew up one of my mom’s favorite Héctor Lavoe salsa songs. As I gazed out the open window with the New York skyline spinning, I noticed the knot in my chest had dissipated into the night air.
After six weeks of virtual lessons, I am not fluent. (To be fair, Gil says it’s basically impossible for anybody speak fluently in six weeks.) But since that night, I have felt my confidence increase every time I speak Spanish with friends, family, or even strangers. Instead of assuming everyone is willing to laugh at me, I’ve learned that at the end of the day everyone just wants to connect through a shared culture and for my culture that includes a shared language. .
So, while I still have a long way to go before I feel ready to do an interview on Frida entirely in Spanish, I a m proud of my progress. I am proud to have taken the first step, to have launched myself and to have even typed these words. And I think Frida would be pretty proud too.