Dinner with the Professor

“Do you speak Spanish?” The Latino professor asks, in between bites of deliciously fresh tacos. We are at an outdoor wedding reception in Santa Ana, California. He and his wife happen to be sharing a table with me and a white couple.

The professor and I are in the middle of a lively conversation with topics ranging from common Spanish foods (both Mexico and the Philippines were colonized by Spain) to Filipino and Mexican history of immigration. The professor teaches history so he knows a lot, and well, it doesn’t take us that long to talk about the elephant in the room.

“No,” I said, and quickly added defensively, “but Tagalog has a lot of Spanish words, so I know some Spanish words. And I can order food in Spanish.”  

I pause, waiting for a response. I am not really sure why I felt defensive just then, but something made me feel like I should know how to speak Spanish. I look at the professor and see there’s nothing accusatory in his expression, making my defensive response really just my own “issue.”

We go on to talk about the current crisis at the border. “Trump’s actions are not surprising. But what’s surprising is his approval ratings did not go down with the families being separated. It says to me, ‘They hate us. They really hate us.'” 

The weight of his words, as heavy as truth tends to be, sinks in. I have no words to say. And maybe that’s alright, for the professor shares, ” My grandmother is Native. They separated Native children from their parents during the Gold Rush. Killed the parents. And took the children as slaves. Do you know about the boarding schools?” I nod. 

“What could make a group of people treat another ethnic group of people that way? Throughout history. Time and time again…” I start to say, quietly.

“When you don’t see that group as human beings. When you think they are animals. Then you feel justified in treating them that way, ” he said.

The professor is right, and once again, I just agree quietly.  

“Do you speak Spanish?” he asks. 

This time, I smile, finally understanding why he’s asking me the same question again, “No, ” I responded, “but I should.” 

The professor smiles back.

My husband used to get the same question when he went to order food at Filipino restaurants. The Filipinos asked him why he couldn’t speak Tagalog. They assumed he was Filipino because of his dark skin. He looked like them.

I don’t look Latina in any way. But the professor decides to see me through familial eyes as though I looked like him. Perhaps it’s because of our shared colonizers, giving us a common language of suffering. Perhaps it’s his boundless hospitality, always inviting the stranger to feel at home  – “Mi casa es su casa.” Perhaps it’s a peculiar Grace, one difficult for me to grasp. 

It strikes me as incredibly humanizing. In a world that has treated his people as less than human, he extends an invitation to learn to speak the language of his heart.

I have decided I should learn Spanish. After all, I already know some Spanish words.

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