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A Native Spanish-Speaker Learns That Fluency Isn’t Always Enough

I’ve always wondered why my dad didn’t name me Santiago.

My very Catholic parents wanted to give me a Biblical name and after ignoring my mother’s suggestion of David, my dad came to the conclusion that the apostle James seemed pretty cool and decided to name me after him.

Only thing was that he chose the English version of the apostle’s name, not the Spanish and very cool-sounding Santiago. For a kid from a Mexican family in a mostly Hispanic southern California town, having an English name was always a bit weird.

All my friends had nice Spanish names like José, or Juan or Manuel.

But me?

I was James.

My friends’ parents, whose main language was Spanish, always struggled to say my name. But I always prided myself on the fact that at least I could speak Spanish like a native speaker. After all, Spanish was my first language and it was the only thing I spoke until I started going to school.

Yes, I told myself. I spoke like a native speaker.

That idea came crashing down yesterday while I was reporting on a story that involved making several long-distance phone calls to Mexico.

“How do you say courthouse in Spanish? What do you call an attorney general? How do I translate all this legal jargon in my story that I clearly know in English?”

All these questions rushed through my head as I was trying to report.

As I spoke with the people on the other end of the line, the difference between my Spanish and theirs was evident. They spewed out the legal jargon that had escaped me with relative ease. My sentences were short and choppy as I struggled to remember how to say official terms and job titles that I needed to explain the story I was reporting and the information I needed to get.

“Me llamo James —” I cringed at the English name, “Barragán.” I rolled my Rs and emphasized the accent on the last A, which my parents taught me never to forget, in an effort to prove my Spanish-speaking credentials.

But it was immediately clear that their Spanish was on a different level than mine.

If I saw these folks on the street, or after church or at a soccer game, I could shoot the breeze with them for days. But on an official level, I was struggling. I understood what they were saying and they understood what I was saying, but my level of comfort with the language was nowhere near theirs.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was also trying to figure out the structure and kinks of the Mexican legal system for my story.

But I won’t use that as an excuse. The fact is, I speak conversational Spanish, and I found that out yesterday.

Of course, I can speak official Spanish, and I have done so in previous internships where the publications I worked for were solely Spanish-speaking, but my level of comfort with it is nowhere near that of a native speaker’s.

Trying to report on crime and the legal system of another country where the official language is Spanish was a whole different beast.

Hector Becerra recently wrote a story in The Los Angeles Times where he tried to do the work of migrant workers in the field. He lasted less than a day picking strawberries.

“I’m the son of immigrants,” he wrote. “But I’m not the same as them.”

I really liked that story because it reminded me of the relationship I share with my parents. Their roots are in me, but at the end of the day, I guess we are different.

Becerra described his Spanish as “fluent but American-sounding.” As I reread the story yesterday, I thought to myself, “That sounds like me.”

I’m still working on the news story and it might not end up working out the way I wanted it to. But the experience I had was eye-opening.

It taught me about differences within language, but also about differences across cultures. Not everyone does things the way we do.

And after thinking about my experience yesterday for a long time, I came to the conclusion that my dad was right. I am not a Santiago. I am very much a James.