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LANGUAGE BARRIER by Raf Gonzalez

Illustration of a lounge room with a television, couch and lampOne of the most widely told stories in my family is the Christmas that I had asked for a Deluxe Red Power Ranger action figure. When the begrudging Santa gave me my present – a red fire truck, which I still have – I made sure to correct him in my comedic nature. “Excuse me, Santa! Excuse me! This is not what I asked for!” I called matter-of-factly. The adults erupted with laughter at my confidence. But it wasn’t long after when I lost that part of myself. As a Salvadoran Latino born and raised here in Perth, I was at a particular disadvantage in an English dominated country such as Australia.

At age 4, a Speech Pathologist identified not only that I had a language disorder, but also informed my parents of the signs that I was Autistic. Being raised bilingual, language was one of the main ways I expressed my comedic self; but as I lost my fluency in Spanish, my vibrancy regressed and I became isolated.

I was enrolled at Carawatha Language Development School to help me adjust with my speech and social skills. I still look fondly back at that time because of the familiar and nurturing faces. Once I had reached year four however, the psychologist deemed that I was ready for mainstream education. This didn’t sit well with me. I felt like I had established myself in that circle of kids, and leaving was too big a change. I felt uncomfortable and desperate to belong as soon as I had moved. While my language wasn’t something that set me apart anymore, I didn’t realise at the time that I had actually sacrificed my bilingualism in order to conquer my speech problem.

My parents worked tirelessly to help me regain my Spanish skills. Being criticised for my pronunciation was a regular practice in my household as I moved through childhood and into high school. The shy and emotional child that I was, resisted. I realise now that they were only trying to help, but it felt patronising and embarrassing. Attending Saturday night mass was an incredibly passive chore to me, as I had no option but to follow my parents’ lead with the ceremony conducted entirely in Spanish. ‘Hola’, ‘Gracias’, and ‘Adios’ could only get me so far.

Gracias, Dios Mio, Por Todo, Noeno, que no estamos hoy, amen.

This was the only real exception for me – a Spanish prayer I could recite before dinner, which I took as my role with immense pride.

Growing up, I felt envy towards my sisters and my cousins here in Perth as their r’s elegantly rolled off their tongues, and they bounced playfully and smoothly between English and Spanish. I wished so badly to connect with my community in this same way. Seeing younger family members navigate language more proficiently than me was infuriating. I felt like I was lagging behind – even putting together a single Spanish sentence was a struggle.

Still, on the outside, I know enough about how to play the part of an ideal Salvadoran: I love pupusas more than anything, Latinx music awakens a special pride and nostalgia for me, and of course, soccer gets me riled up like any other Salvadoran soccer fanatic. But, language still occupies a big space in my identity as I grow more into myself. Even if there are ways that I’m not completely excluded, knowing Spanish is still a very big area that I don’t have access to in knowing more about my culture.

My teenage years were therefore very revolutionary for me. This was the time that I received my first English-Spanish dictionary. After being nagged constantly, “Rafa you should take up Spanish lessons”, and having suggestions thrown at me left-right-and-centre, the dictionary was like a crutch. It was the only way that I could keep up with knowing what to say in response and at my own pace. I still have a strong memory of clinging to my dictionary as much as I could during my 5-week vacation to El Salvador with dad.

My dad had also installed a Spanish cable around this time, which soon enough took over the entire lounge space. Before I knew it, he would call me in for my favourite shows, “Rafa, Cuna De Lobos is on!”. La Mentira and El Privilegio were highlights of my evenings. The characters with their rolling r’s and exaggerated ‘ayes’ were a familiar kind of humour to me. But most importantly, watching the novellas play out in front of my eyes, empowered my language with a sense of ‘how’; they gave my language character, expression, flair.

Better representation has helped me embrace my roots in many ways. Language has certainly been the primary access point for me, but as I have engaged more with my culture, I’ve seen just how much language lends itself to particular stereotypes. Seeing the shifting roles in Latinx character and the way this has reshaped the associated clichés has been pivotal in my growth as a Latino person. We are now in a time where we are seeing less Latinx people as the cleaners, the gardeners, and doing the care-taking tasks – or on the total opposite scale of this, the gangsters and the illegal immigrants – but as hardworking, well-valued people with agency over their own stories. I still hold Selena Quintanilla Pérez as a prime role model within my life and how I have come to understand my sense of belonging. Like myself, Selena came from a mixed background: Mexican-American. While English was her dominant language, her Mexican roots stopped her from being accepted as fully American. She was neither ‘Mexican’ enough nor ‘American’ enough for either side, yet she continues as an exception and a legacy embraced by many with Latinx roots. While I am still understanding how I can be both ‘Salvadoran’ and ‘Australian’ enough, I am also understanding that this is something I don’t have to be. I am hopeful that there is a space in the future where you don’t have to be one or the other, but can exist as a complex person still navigating all the barriers.


Raf Gonzalez is a Latino multi-disciplinary artist; born and raised in Perth, he comes from a family of migrants who moved from El Salvado during the Salvadoran Civil War. Raf is a proud Aspie whose work highlights often-marginalised diverse identities, raising them from supporting character to protagonist, and giving them the agency they often aren’t afforded. Raf has been supported by DADAA and the Centre for Stories with his writing.

Copyright © 2020 Raf Gonzalez.


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