The Two Lives of Latinos

Feb 4, 2021
4:22 PM

LAS VEGAS — You could say Val has a split personality, and not because she’s a Gemini.

Her co-workers know her as “Valeria,” the COO of a midsized company. She has the big corner office —windowless, but still— and a new E-Class parked in her reserved spot near the entrance. She’s professional, diligent, and sharp, speaking in clear English, her accent more Chicagoan than Spanish.

But Spanish is her first language.

Growing up, she was “Lupita,” short for her middle name, after her mother. Lupita was born south of the border, but all of her memories are of America. She comes from a big family, and though she has no memories of her birth country, she describes her childhood home as being “a little Mexico.” Everything outside was the United States.

Lupita speaks with the Spanish she picked up from her big family —all her brothers and sisters, her mom and dad, all her aunts and uncles, all her cousins, and her grandparents— plus all the novelas she’s watched and songs she’s heard.

Val may not know all the big fancy words in Spanish that she knows in English, but she’s way more comfortable in Spanish.

Her Spanish is higher too, tonally, than her English. Maybe because her Spanish has more energy to it, more zip, snap. Her voice crackles in Spanish, whereas her English merely slides out, her words landing like bean bags.

Val herself is a firecracker in Spanish, while in English she mostly comes off as an angry person—but again, that’s probably due to the lower, cooler tone. She’s a lot funnier in Spanish, though, for sure. As they say, the difference between likable and unlikable, between being the hero or the villain, is a little charm.

When she scolds her kid in English, or her man, they know they’ve stepped in it. But if she’s yelling in Spanish, despite the extra bite it has, it doesn’t have the same edge or chill to it, for the simple fact that a Fuck you! is way worse than a ¡Chinga tu madre! The Spanish has a little love in it, but Fuck you! always means what it says.

Then again, it all depends on who she’s with, who she’s talking to. Context means everything.

Which is what I’m getting at: You could say Val has a split personality, but really, she just uses her personality in different ways under different settings.

If Val’s personality in English seems harsher than it does in Spanish, that’s because she uses English exclusively at work where, in a world revolving around power relationships, she’s forced to be harsher. No one gets to the top of the business ladder with kindness and passivity, much less a Latina.

But that doesn’t mean Val keeps Lupita at home and only brings Valeria to work. Despite her perfect English and business savvy, it isn’t only Valeria who’s achieved all that she has in her career—Lupita’s been right there with her at every step. And the independent streak that makes Valeria the business boss is what makes Lupita muy chingona.

I know this for how my own personality seems to change depending on which language I’m speaking. I’m alright with English, able to express myself, or hide, pretty much however I want. I can be myself in English, or so I think.

But when I have to speak in Spanish, all that confidence flies out the window. Spanish is my first language, but right around four or so I began speaking mostly in English, because that’s what my friends and most people at school spoke. English was what my Puerto Rican dad and his Italian wife spoke. English was what the Turtles and the Ghostbusters spoke in the movies, and what Mister Rodgers and King Friday spoke on Channel 11.

Spanish was only what my grandparents and aunts spoke, and what came out of their radios and TVs. Growing up an American Latino, Spanish was usually on the periphery. I knew a bit of it, but it wasn’t my world.

So now that Spanish is my world, or at least a lot more than it used to be —with my wife and her family, and me surrounding myself with more and more Spanish-speakers— I’m struggling to be in Spanish who I am in English.

It’s the worst when I’m trying to bond with my father-in-law. Spending time with his father-in-law is when a man tries to be at his most manliest, but not being able to express himself can be emasculating for a man, as it’s dehumanizing. Not being able to express who you are zaps you of the power to be who you are. Call it your life force, or your ego—it’s all the same thing.

While he probably doesn’t, I’m sure my suegro thinks less of me for how weak and feeble I am in Spanish. He must say to himself at least 10 times a day: “This guy’s a writer?”

And as much as I’d like to think that who I am in Spanish is not who I really am, which is who I am in English, the truth is, of course, that I’m both. My skill with English allows me to present myself, to put on a show of myself, that my lack of skill with Spanish keeps me from doing whenever I’m speaking with my father-in-law. I can’t seem as manly as I want to, for one, if I’m bumbling and mumbling through simple sentences.

But then that means I’m not as manly as I think I am, because my skill with English, my ability to present myself in English, allows me to mask my lack of manliness. Same goes for any other attribute—however ignorant I am in Spanish, I’m just as ignorant in English, only my English allows me to hide it better.

For the past couple of decades, psychologists and linguists have been exploring the ways in which language affects our personalities. Some studies have found that language even affects how people perceive color. For a bilingual person, that is, rojo feels different than red.

Dr. François Grosjean, a Swiss professor of psycholinguistics, gives three examples of how bilinguals feel they have different personalities in different languages:

Bilingual 1: ‘When I’m around Anglo-Americans, I find myself awkward and unable to choose my words quickly enough … When I’m amongst Latinos/Spanish-speakers, I don’t feel shy at all. I’m witty, friendly, and … I become very outgoing.'”

Bilingual 2: ‘In English, my speech is very polite, with a relaxed tone, always saying “please” and “excuse me.” When I speak Greek, I start talking more rapidly, with a tone of anxiety and in a kind of rude way…'”

Bilingual 3: ‘I find when I’m speaking Russian I feel like a much more gentle, “softer” person. In English, I feel more “harsh,” “businesslike.” ‘

Dr. Grosjean agrees that the bilingual person’s personality isn’t what’s changing. It’s the bilingual person’s social environment, the culture around him or her, that affects how a person speaks and expresses their personality:

“I proposed in my first book on bilingualism, Life with Two Languages, that what is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language. Basically, the bicultural bilinguals in these studies were behaving biculturally, that is, adapting to the context they were in.”

For an immigrant Latina like Val maneuvering the U.S. business world, the contrast between her home environment and her work environment, and the shift in her personality as she adapts to one or the other, can feel like having two completely separate personalities, one at work and one at home. But Val’s the same person in both places, of course, only her personality, or who she is, is much wider and more complex than maybe even she herself appreciates.

Like my thinking I’m more myself in English, Val might like to believe she’s her true self at home. But then who’s that other person at work? That’s Val, too—Val, Valerie and Lupita.

There’s a Czech proverb that goes, “Learn a new language and get a new soul.” A person can’t have two souls, or even just a new one, but he or she can have distinct sides to their personality, which make it seem like they have multiple personalities, or many souls.

So being bilingual, not to mention multilingual, gives you a wider, more complex personality—two ways of perceiving the world, and two ways of expressing yourself. Being bicultural on top of it, as most Latinos are, gives you even more points of reference, more points of view, more ways of sensing the world around you, and more ways of describing it all.

Being bilingual and bicultural doesn’t give you two separate personalities, but the abilities of two personalities in one.


Hector Luis Alamo is the Editor and Publisher of ENCLAVE and host of the Latin[ish] podcast. He tweets from @HectorLuisAlamo.