Helana Rodriguez: Growing up speaking Spang-lish


By Helena Rodriguez

Guest Columnist

I asked Dad randomly the other day, “So how did you learn English when you were a little boy?”

Of course, there’s no such thing as a random question from a veteran news woman like me.

“What?” Dad just kind of looked at me and shrugged. My timing wasn’t exactly great, either. His team, the Cowboys, were taking the field against the Patriots right about that time and Dad’s attention was focused on the tube.

My mind, on the other hand, was focused on a recent column I had written about learning English and Spanish.

“You know, when you were a little boy?” I continued. “You didn’t know English when you started school, right?”

“No, I didn’t,” Dad said as he managed to look at me again for a split Dallas Cowboy-crazed second.

“Well, you must have learned pretty fast because there weren’t any Spanish TV channels on cable back then,” I continued, trying to force my “fastest way to learning English theory” on him.

I believe many students learned to speak English fastest during my elementary days because they had no choice. There were no Univision and Telemundo TV networks.

“Actually,” Mom jumped in, much to Dad’s relief as Dad focused back on the big game, “He didn’t learn English until he married me. I mean, he knew some English, but he wasn’t really around it all of the time until we got married.”

Mom and Dad were married in 1965 in Portales. They met in Lubbock. We recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Mom was born in northern New Mexico, in Encino, and then raised in Portales. Dad, by contrast, grew up in South Texas. As migrant farmworkers, Spanish was the language of the day for my dad. Dad started to learn English when he started school, but he never made it past grade school. The fields were his classroom.

For Mom, though, it was another story. When she started grade school in Vaughn, and then moved with her family to Portales, students were punished for speaking Spanish in the 1950s, and so they learned English fast. And so you can say that Dad, in turn, learned English fast too, but at a later age, when he married my mom, Katie.

After a three-month courtship, Dad went from having two mostly Spanish-speaking brothers to now having nine, mostly English-speaking brothers-in-law. Given the fact that Mom and Dad made Portales their home, Dad learned to mix his “rolling of the rs” with lots of “yalls” and “gonnas.”

As I told you in a previous column, my sisters and I were taught English by my parents and never became fluent in Spanish. That was at the request of my paternal grandma who herself never learned English but wanted us girls to so we would do good in school.

We grew up speaking English, and later Spanglish as we expanded our Spanish vocabulary.

As for one of my youngest sisters, though, she had a crash course in Spanish when her mother-in-law (now her ex-mother-in-law) only spoke Spanish.

The bottom line is that you will speak the language you need to survive. And if it is not your native tongue, then you learn really fast. As for me and other in-betweens, survival mode is a mix of both languages — “Spang-lish.”

We can roll perfect rs, even though we don’t always know what we are saying in Spanish or what is being said to us. We shake our heads and we nod, “Si si. I know, huh!  Habla Span-glish?”

Helena Rodriguez is a Portales native. Contact her at: Helena-Rodriguez@hotmail.com

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