Skip to main content

Navigating my Double-Identity through Language

Jacqueline Howell
23 December 2021

Navigating my Double-Identity through Language

From a young age, I have grappled with how to carry and convey the two worlds that live within me. Having said my first words in Spanish in Argentina, but then read my first book in the United States in English, I have felt straddled across the Northern and Southern tips of a continent for as long as I can remember. 

My earliest memory of realizing that my ‘double-identity’ was a hidden gem, unapparent to others, happened as a fourth grader at a public school in the United States that had a predominantly monolingual teacher and student population. The teacher needed help communicating with the new student from Paraguay and called out “I wish there was someone who could speak Spanish so he would understand!” Innocently, I walked up and said in my unambiguous American accent, “I can help, I speak Spanish. I’ll tell him what you’re saying.” To my surprise, the teacher brushed me aside and laughed saying, “I need a real Spanish-speaker, not someone who can just say ‘Hola.’” His reaction confused me because I whole-heartedly knew that I was Argentine and could speak Spanish fluently thanks to the tireless efforts of my mother who ensured that I continue speaking her language and internalizing her culture despite having been transplanted into a mostly English-speaking environment at a young age. Disregarding the teacher’s disapproval, I boldly turned to the new student, and began elaborately explaining in Spanish what were the instructions that had just been said to the class and transmitted back what the new student replied. The teacher was completely shocked to say the least. At that age, I couldn’t fathom why my outward appearance and English fluency masked my firmly held Argentine identity. Only later did I realize that certain people in the U.S. had a stereotypical vision of what a Spanish-speaker should look and sound like, and I didn’t fit that mold. From then on, I found myself leveraging my double-identity to enter spaces and navigate conversations with those who lacked an understanding of the diverse make-up of Latin American people so to begin breaking down certain pre-conceived notions of what it is to be Hispanic.  

Having grown up in a bilingual and bicultural family where I would speak Spanish when facing my mother but then turn to my father and seamlessly switch to speaking English, I feel that the cultivation of my double-identity has been rooted in language. My mother prioritized yearly trips to Buenos Aires to visit family and it was there that language allowed me to happily participate in lively family gatherings, develop tight-knit relationships with my cousins, and claim the Argentine culture as my own. Looking back, I can now see how the power of language has weaved its way throughout my life and been a force for good. As a soccer player in high school, I found joy amongst my Spanish-speaking teammates as we celebrated our achievements on and off the field in a common language. During my university years, I found comfort in community among the large Hispanic organization on campus that brought together Latin American students from all corners. Most recently as an English Language Learner (ELL) Teacher, I found purpose as I put to practice my cross-cultural language abilities to speak up for the needs of my culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families in an effort to integrate them into the school community. Through my upbringing, I have had the privilege of feeling proud of being a fluent Argentine Spanish-speaker. When meeting new people in English-speaking settings, I am eager to express that while I’ve grown up in the U.S., I’m originally from Argentina because I yearn to highlight the less evident though ever relevant side of me that encompasses important aspects of my personality, my way of thinking, and how I interact with those around me.  

While having spent most of my life in the United States, I can genuinely say that my Argentine heritage has contributed to the invaluable set of skills I carry with me today. My Spanish-language abilities, capacity to adapt, and respect for different cultures influence the work I do within international organizations like IOM-UN Migration and beyond.

As a child, I would ask my mother, “Why do you always make me speak Spanish??” and her response would be “Lo vas a entender cuando seas grande,” (You’ll understand why when you’re older). Over the years, my lived experiences have led me to appreciate my double-identity and truly understand the why behind her decision to pass on her culture through language, a gift for which I am immensely grateful.