When you live in Florida, you don’t need to look very far to find Spanish speakers. For three years in high school, I attended the annual Florida State Spanish Conference (Conferencia) in Orlando, Florida and I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of Florida’s vibrant Latino culture. As a member of a 16-person competition team, I practiced impromptu speeches and rehearsed a play called “La Casa de Huéspedes” (“The Guest House”).
For four days, Spanish was the only language that I spoke and heard, and I found myself quite literally front and center of it all as narrator of the play. I encountered many unfamiliar words in the script and I practiced carefully pronouncing my lines with my teammates. During our practice sessions, my funny teammates transformed into a sassy lady knitting in an armchair and a sick elderly woman. Even though it was intimidating to introduce the play in front of a panel of judges, I knew that my teammates were right behind me ready to get into character at a moment’s notice.
While the Sunshine State may seem to be an extension of Latin America, growing up in Gainesville, Florida didn’t offer me many experiences to learn Spanish and connect with my Mexican roots until I tried out for Conferencia. I knew plenty of Spanish vocabulary prior to joining the team, but it all finally came together during those long hours practicing the speech topics. Instead of working on grammar exercises, I was able to tell people what I thought about my favorite books or my opinion on American fashion. When we weren’t practicing, we talked about a myriad of topics ranging from soccer teams to popular Latin songs. During those memorable spring days in Orlando, I immersed myself not in a country, but in a community brought together by our shared appreciation for the Spanish language. My heritage and culture came alive during our lively play practice sessions. The family that my teammates and teachers created is something that I still carry with me as a proud Latina finally able to speak Spanish fluently.
Fast forward to my first semester at Smith College when I attended my first Nosotr@s general body meeting. I discovered a supportive community of strong Latin@s who remind me of my beloved Conferencia teammates and I have immersed myself in everything that Nosotr@s has to offer. Thanks to Nosotr@s, I began to speak Spanish in and outside the classroom and learn more about the Latino community in New England. I took upon the challenge of planning the Seven Sisters Latin@ Conference as a way of connecting with Latinos engaged in the arts, activism, and everything in between. While the conference ultimately did not take place, it helped me become aware of the great work that Latinos are doing to celebrate their culture and solve issues facing the Latino community.
Until I joined the Conferencia team, I didn’t realize how far I could get learning Spanish as a non-native speaker. Thanks to my Conferencia teammates and friends in Nosotr@s, I discovered my passion for Spanish and, more specifically, Spanish literature. Now that I better understand the diverse experiences of Latinas and Spanish Americans, I feel more connected to the history and culture that created the literature that I admire. I now realize just how diverse our community is since it’s made up of monolingual Spanish and English speakers, bilingual Latinos, and speakers of indigenous languages. Speaking Spanish does not define being a Latina for me, but it has helped me find other people who share the same language and similar life experiences.
Even though I didn’t stay very long in the “guest house” at Conferencia, the memories I made with my teammates have left a lasting impression on my academic and personal journeys. I no longer feel an awkward distance towards Spanish because I can interact with other native speakers and learn expressions specific to certain countries. With a language that has more than 400 million speakers in 31 different countries, my stay in the “guest house” helped me discover who I am as one of those Spanish speakers.
Angela Acosta is a junior English and Spanish major pursing the Translation Studies Concentration. She is a Mellon Mays fellow working on a research project translating and analyzing poems from Vicente Aleixandre’s book Sombra del paraíso (Shadow of Paradise). You will likely find her making pottery in the ceramics studio or inline skating around the quad on a nice day.by