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I Am Proud to Speak Tagalog; It's a Gift |

I Am Proud to Speak Tagalog; It’s a Gift
"English Only Zone" via Lalo Alcaraz ©2002+ Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate
M.T. Vallarta

I am standing in a classroom next to my mother. The wall is an assemblage of red, yellow, and blue bulletin boards, plastered with papers and pictures I could not readily decipher. A young blonde and willowy woman is speaking to my mother. I could only guess what they must be talking about; the rest of the room is filled with other mothers and fathers speaking with their children, clutching their hands and straightening their jackets and blouses. Mops of yellow and brown sit on the other children’s heads. I look down at my long black mane and can’t help but think how dark and murky it is. The woman shakes my mother’s hand, directs a small smile towards me, and moves on to talk to the rest of the parents. My mother takes this moment to kneel down beside me, tucking loose strands behind my ears and smoothing the shirt she had picked out for me this morning.

Anak, I will be going soon,” she says. “Will you be all right?”

I look around. I nod. She tells me to be good. She reminds me that I have money for lunch in my pocket and a bottle of juice in my backpack. She kisses me on the forehead, stands, and leaves the room. The rest of the parents follow after her. Now I am standing in the room with the other children. Many have already began to exchange hellos with each other. I look around but cannot catch a flash of anything remotely familiar. I stand, hunching my shoulders, looking even smaller. Then a loud, screeching, bell-like sound overtakes the room. The blonde woman says something very loudly and the other children begin to seat themselves at the tables. I am not sure if or where I am supposed to sit, so I remain standing. Soon, everyone is at a desk and chair except me. The blonde woman makes a gesture towards me, but I cannot understand what she means. I remain standing until she finally takes my hand, walks me over to a chair and desk, and makes me sit. I can feel my face beginning to burn. Everyone is staring.

The author's family  during a Christmas in New Jersey.

My family during a Christmas holiday in New Jersey.

Later that day, I would give my parents a letter from my teacher asking them to speak more English at home. I was classified as an English as a second language learner, and would be required to take ESL instruction at school.

My Filipino language instructors (left) and my mother and me (right) at my college graduation.

That’s me, with my Filipino language instructors (left) and mother (right), at college graduation.

Contrary to what folks might think, I did not start school as a newly arrived immigrant. I was born and raised in New Jersey, but was not able to speak much English due to the fact that my parents spoke Tagalog at home. My parents and older sister had immigrated from the Philippines a year before I was born. They had already become accustomed to the English language, but they still communicated in Tagalog with one another. Nothing was different with my younger sister and me. We played, laughed, and squabbled in Tagalog. At the dinner table, my family spoke in Tagalog. My mother sang lullabies and told soothing stories before bed in Tagalog. And when she bid good-bye to me on my first day of school, she did so in Tagalog.

At the age of eighteen, while still struggling to make sense of the English language and trying to battle bouts of impostor syndrome—I fought to make myself eloquent and well-spoken like the rest of the students at my college—I asked my mother why. Why had she decided not to teach me English? Why did she let me struggle as an ESL student? Why did she let things be so difficult and incomprehensible?

And she said, “Kasi mahalaga ang ating wika.” (Because our language is precious.) Our language is precious, like the old rosaries my grandmother passed down to my mother and her granddaughters; like the old Filipino myths and legends I am able to understand and decipher; and like the bonds and the ties I share not only with my family in America but in the larger diaspora. Although we have been split and spread across seven countries, our language allows my family to remain in contact. It keeps the motherland close and our hearts even closer.

I never truly understood the value of being able to speak Tagalog until I found myself struggling to speak it after a year of not using it regularly. I was a sophomore in college and I was stuttering and stumbling with my mother over the phone as I tried to tell her about my day. Subsequently, I signed up for Filipino language classes. I retained my fluency and even improved my reading and writing comprehension. Now, I am motivated to keep improving and treasuring my first language. Not only for Ph.D. research purposes, but because it is one of the many gifts—other than their unconditional love and support—that my parents have given me. I want to keep using this gift, to polish it, add to it, and hopefully pass it down to the next generation.

M.T. Vallarta

M.T. Vallarta is a Ph.D. student from Los Angeles, CA. She received her undergraduate education at the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in English and Asian American Studies. While at Cal, she was an editor of {m}aganda Magazine and was heavily involved in student of color groups and community organizing spaces. She identifies strongly as a scholar-activist, and hopes to produce scholarship that directly impacts and benefits the very communities she serves. When not blogging, writing, or studying, she enjoys reading, playing video games, drinking tea, and eating good food.

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