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Neelesh Rathi, The University of Texas at Austin

03 July 2020

This wasn’t the first time I’d done a TalkAbroad, however, I don’t recall feeling embarrassed the last time. But when I apologized halfway through the conversation for the difficulties I was having—for my stumbling Spanish and my occasional, also-stumbling Spanglish—my partner, Claudia Barajas Bañuelos said, “Claro que es difícil.” Ironically, at the time, I thought she was light-heartedly poking fun at how clear my difficulty was, given that “claro,” on its own, means “clear.” “Claro que es difícil,” I assumed, meant, “Clearly it’s difficult.” While I now realize my mistranslation, and that she was just trying to make me feel better, at the time, it was rather mortifying. However, in that moment, I also realized something troubling: I was struggling so much in the conversation partly because I wasn’t really trying to improve my Spanish. Instead, I was treating this conversation—and the time, money, and effort I put into it—as just a way to get a grade in my introductory Spanish class.

That’s not why I want to learn Spanish.

I want to learn Spanish so I can have informative, productive conversations with different people—different backgrounds, different cultures, different experiences. But I also want to learn Spanish so I can discover unknown similarities—like I discovered with Claudia as we discussed the similar problems in U.S. and Mexican governance, social welfare, and inequality.

I want to learn Spanish because the Anglo tradition has gaps, though it constantly purports to be universal—ALL men are created equal, the UNIVERSAL Declaration of Human Rights; even just the way Westerners often make generic, totalizing statements about “people” and “human nature.” But to quote bell hooks, a critical race scholar, the Anglo tradition is an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”; it has ignored and/or suppressed a lot of “people” in the past. And, based on the rightward shift in world politics—including the U.S. and, as Claudia informed me, Mexico—historia está repitiéndose.

Claudia, as a Latina woman, and I, as a brown Asian, live in a world where that phrase, “ALL men,” excluded us. Our shared frustration with the current lack, in our respective countries, of adequate healthcare for all, was addressed only once in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and 72 years later, I still don’t have health insurance and probably won’t get any because it’s neither adequate nor affordable in a country with numerous billionaires; so too, as Claudia informed me, in Mexico.

The Anglo tradition has gaps, and I want to learn Spanish (and other languages) because Claudia and people like her—people outside the Anglo tradition—fill in those gaps. I want to understand the whole world, not be chained by what the Anglosphere purports it, and “people,” and “human nature,” to be.

I want to learn Spanish because the better I understand Claudia’s world—the gap in the Anglo tradition where her life and uniqueness falls—the more I can improve it and everyone else’s.