Grace's Words

Place, Race, and Language: An Afternoon on Erie Ave.

Last August my husband, Noé, and I moved into a row house just off the corner of Erie Ave. and Nth 11th St. of Philadelphia. This is the first place we have lived together as husband and wife and it has been in many ways unlike any place either of has lived before. Nonetheless, we have come to regard it as our home.

In this year I have thought more critically about the ways place, race, and language influence how we see others, how others see us, and how we see ourselves. Studying anthropology familiarized me with these concepts before coming to Philadelphia. And yet this year I have truly come to understand the fluidity of identity in everyday interactions across different communities. It has become more real to me – as my own identity has been called into question this least year – the idea that place, race, and language are not equal factors in every context for identifying or being identified.

Let me explain a little more.

Erie Ave. and Nth 11th St. is located in a primarily African-American and Latino neighborhood. To my knowledge I am the only white person living on my block. I use the phrase “to my knowledge” because I have not entered every home on my block to find out who lives there and how they identify themselves. Therefore, I cannot guarantee that I am the only white person who lives on my block. However, I have developed relationships with many people on my block and can say that I have spoken with only one other woman who identifies as white; she frequently visits the block, but does not live on it.

During my trips to the grocery store, bank, and other shops in the neighborhood I have received looks of confusion and have been asked multiple times questions about who I am. Perhaps it seems odd to some that a rather pale “white-looking” women would be out running errands on the lower streets of Erie Ave.

I have had my own moments of confusion as well when people do not speak to me in English, but rather speak to me unquestioningly in Spanish. I can’t know everything that they assume about me in these moments, but for certain they assume that in spite of any aspect of my appearance that I speak Spanish. Fortunately, I do speak Spanish with great proficiency and with fairly descent pronunciation skills.

As a life-long, Spanish-learner it is a great joy to speak Spanish with my neighbors and people I meet in the neighborhood. As a linguistic anthropologist it is a pleasure to think and talk with people in the neighborhood about place, race, and language.

One experience this summer was especially enlightening and I write about this one in particular because it crystalizes much of what I have experienced this last year.

One afternoon at approximately 4:00PM I entered the lobby of the Wells Fargo bank on the corner of Erie Ave. and 6th St. I sighed seeing the usual line that would keep me here for at least the next 45 minutes. The women in front of me chats in Spanish and English with who appears to be her mother or grandmother. Her teenage children sit in chairs off to the side and interject in the conversation every so often. Hearing my sigh she turns around, looks me up and down, and goes back to her conversation.

Trying not to eavesdrop I listen to how she speaks beautiful Spanish with such ease and think to myself about how my own “gringa” accent in Spanish sounds unpleasant. But I am reminded of something my Spanish professor once said to me, “Grace, everyone has an accent.”

Ten minutes or so pass and a man behind me breaks my train of thought, asking me a question in Spanish about his check and his account. We talk briefly and then I turn back toward the line again. Immediately the woman in front of me turns to me and says in English, “Aren’t you white?”

A little startled by the directness of her question – usually people ask me something like “Where are you from?” or “How did you learn Spanish?” – I answer her question, “Yes, I am white.”

She responds, “But you speak Spanish?”

I say, “Yes, I do speak Spanish.” Noting the look of confusion on her face I begin explaining that I learned Spanish while going to school and am I also married to a native Spanish-speaker from Mexico.

Her face changes to show more understanding and she starts nodding and saying “Ok, ok, ok.”

At one point she says to me, “You speak better than me and my kids.”

I quickly say, “No I don’t speak better just different.” She seems unsatisfied with that answer and insists that really I speak better. I continue to insist that no one speaks better or worse than anyone else rather we all speak differently.

We talk for a bit more. She asks me about Noé and we complain about how the line is always so long in here.

After she turns back to her mother or grandmother I begin thinking about how we all have some insecurities about how we speak. For me, in Spanish, I am constantly worried about saying the wrong word, mispronouncing something, or not using the correct masculine and feminine form in Spanish. I am not sure what she is worried about when speaking Spanish because I didn’t ask her. But, this and other similar experiences make me want to learn more about how bilingual and multilingual speakers feel differently when communicating in one language or another.

But back to my original point – place, race, and language are not equal factors in every context for identifying or being identified. Identity is fluid in everyday interactions across contexts and communities. And while this may seem obvious when reading anthropology texts about identity construction, discourse analysis texts about identity markers and membership categorization, and sociological texts about race relations it is never more real then when your own identity becomes suspect in the place in which you have come to feel at home.

To that end, I am reminded that how we see others and how we see ourselves in terms of place, race, and language does not always match with how others see us and others see themselves.

Photo Credit: phillymuralpics.com (Erie and 13th St.)

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