Episode 12: Sin vergüenza

Maria Murriel used to struggle with living between languages and cultures, and for many years tried to hide the accent that marked her as an immigrant in the United States. Eventually, she realized that what she had been treating as a challenge was actually a key part of her identity.

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Transcript

Martina: Maria Murriel moved to the United States from Peru during one of the toughest times in a kid’s life: puberty. To make matters more complicated, she had to learn to maneuver a new language — and we know how tricky that can be.

Maria: Yo hablaba inglés con un acento fuerte y los niños de mi clase se reían de mí.

Martina: Maria had moved to Miami, probably the city with the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in the U.S. But even there, she learned to be afraid to stand out. She will never forget the day a girl got angry with her in the middle of class...

Maria: La niña me miró y dijo: “Stupid ref!”.

Martina: “Ref” was short for refugee, and it was used as a derogatory term for immigrants who had recently arrived. The majority of Miamians are Latinos, but assimilated, generations ago, so some of them used this term to put down those who had just arrived and perhaps didn’t speak English yet.

Maria: Fue un momento difícil y triste para mí. Yo no pensaba que ser inmigrante era malo. Pero ese día, aprendí que “ref” era un insulto muy fuerte. También aprendí a tenerle miedo a esa palabra.

Martina: Fear of that word would change Maria’s relationship with her culture forever. Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host, Martina Castro. Each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers around the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language. When Maria was growing up in Peru, her parents were always trying to save money.

Maria: Eran los años 90 y Perú había vivido terrorismo y violencia por más de una década. Y ahora, el país estaba en una crisis económica. No había trabajo y la gente no se sentía segura.

Martina: One day, Maria’s dad was robbed.

Maria: Alguien atacó a mi papá en la calle.

Martina: It was the last straw. The family decided they needed to leave and find better opportunities.

Maria: Unos meses después, nos fuimos a Estados Unidos. Era mi primera vez en un avión. Yo tenía 11 años. Mi hermano menor tenía 7... y vomitó por casi 5 horas en el viaje.

Martina: It was a nerve-wracking moment for the whole family. And María was the only one who spoke English. Back in Peru, since she was five years old, she had studied English at her all girls’ Catholic school. They learned the language by singing songs.

Maria: Cantábamos canciones fáciles como: “pollito: chicken, gallina: hen, lápiz: pencil, lapicero: pen…”

Martina: When María turned 10, her teacher, Miss Berta, had the class listen to music in English through headphones. Specifically, hits from the Swedish disco band ABBA, in all of its 70s splendor.

Maria: Miss Berta decía que ABBA era la mejor opción para aprender la pronunciación en inglés. Como era una banda de Suecia, hablaban inglés despacito.

Martina: So now Maria would spend classes transcribing the words to songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia”.

Maria: Miss Berta siempre decía que yo estaba avanzando rápido, que mi inglés era excelente.

Martina: But when Maria entered sixth grade in Miami, the school assigned her to the lowest level of English, along with every other newly arrived immigrant kid. They didn’t seem to care that she knew all the words to “Dancing Queen”.

Maria: En esa clase conocí a Melanie, mi primera amiga en Estados Unidos. Ella era de Guatemala y vivía cerca de mi casa. Melanie y yo pasábamos mucho tiempo juntas. Los fines de semana jugábamos en la piscina con nuestros hermanos pequeños.

Martina: And they had a lot in common: their families had both recently arrived to the U.S., they had both gone to Catholic school and they were both shy.

Maria: Pero yo hablaba inglés mejor que Melanie.

Martina: Maria and Melanie took science class in English, away from the other kids who had recently arrived in the US. And since Maria understood a little more English than Melanie, the science teacher often asked Maria to translate for her friend. Every day, the teacher would give her lesson, and Maria would whisper the lesson to Melanie in Spanish.

Maria: Un día, unas niñas en mi clase de ciencia no paraban de hablar. La maestra estaba furiosa.

Martina: The teacher told the other girls to stop talking. When they realized they were in trouble, one of the girls got furious. She pointed at Maria, and screamed, “But she is always talking! Yell at her!”

Maria: Mi cara se puso roja por la vergüenza. Yo solo hablaba para explicar las lecciones a Melanie. Nunca pensé que iba a causar un problema.

Martina: The teacher told the girl that Maria had permission to talk in class. Just like that. She didn’t explain why. And that’s when that word came into Maria’s life.

Maria: La niña nos miró a Melanie y a mí y dijo: “Stupid refs!”.

Martina: Again, “Ref”, short for refugee, was an insult. It was a classist and xenophobic word, used by Latinos who were more established in Miami against those who had just arrived. From this moment forward, María was determined to do whatever it took to lose her accent and blend in.

Maria: Un año después, todo cambió: nuevo barrio y nueva casa. Ya no podía ir a la piscina con Melanie. No tenía amigos en la nueva escuela. Estaba sola. Mi hermano estaba aprendiendo inglés, pero solo estaba en tercer grado. Y yo no hablaba sobre estas cosas con mis papás. Pensaba que no iban a entender.

Martina: María’s parents didn’t face the same social pressures in Miami as she did. Even though they may have occasionally faced discrimination from Latinos who were fluent in English, it was still Miami and completely possible for them to go about their lives speaking only in Spanish. Plus, they had each other. So when it came to Maria’s struggle to belong and fit in at school, she felt like she was on her own. Maria remembers walking into her new school with her mom on her first day.

Maria: Recuerdo que la escuela era fría. Todos los estudiantes hablaban inglés.

Martina: Maria was given a placement test to see what level of English she should take.

Maria: El examen fue muy fácil: me preguntaron cosas como “how old are you?” y “my name is Maria”... La maestra estaba sorprendida con mi inglés. Dijo: “Tu inglés es perfecto, no necesitas tomar más clases de inglés”.

Martina: The teacher told Maria that she was fluent in English, and that she should have never been placed in such a low level at her previous school. From here on out, Maria would be put in a regular class with native speakers.

Maria: Mi mamá estaba feliz, pero yo tenía mucho miedo. ¿Podría asistir a clases con hablantes nativos de inglés? Y pensé: tengo que hablar muy bien para que nadie me llame “ref”. Practicaba mucho en casa para perder mi acento. Veía Scooby-Doo en la televisión con mi hermano. Imitaba el acento de Velma y el de Daphne.

Martina: Maria knew all of the Scooby-Doo episodes by heart because she had seen them already in Perú, dubbed over in Spanish.

Maria: Yo repetía: “Let’s split up!” y “We got him!”. Pero todavía tenía un acento fuerte. Era muy difícil pronunciar algunas palabras: por ejemplo, no entendía la diferencia entre “this” y “these”.

Martina: She also struggled with the various ways to pronounce an S. In Spanish the S is always the same, but in English it’s trickier. For example, she had trouble with the word “loser” -- a key word for survival in high school.

Maria: Mi primer novio fue Adrián. Teníamos 13 años, y la familia de Adrián era de Argentina, pero él había nacido en Estados Unidos. Sus papás tenían una tienda y la abuela de Adrián siempre nos daba empanadas y dulces. En la escuela, Adrián me escribía notas de amor. Él también tocaba la guitarra y escribía canciones. Yo sabía que algún día él iba a ser mi futuro esposo.

Martina: Until one day, when Maria said a word with a Spanish accent, and Adrian, told her jokingly, “Aw, you’re like a little ref!” That word again, the one Maria feared the most. She was mortified and overwhelmed with shame.

Maria: Mi acento todavía era muy fuerte y ahora Adrián pensaba que yo era una ref. Otra vez, sentí mucha vergüenza por no hablar como los demás. Quería cambiar, quería hablar “normal”. Entonces decidí estudiar más con Scooby-Doo. Empecé a hablar con mucho cuidado en la escuela. También con Adrián.

Martina: Maria did get better at hiding her accent, but she and Adrian didn’t get married. Years later, when Maria went off to college, she entered a bilingual program. At first, she didn’t want to go, because she was afraid of returning to the years she spent with Melanie as an outsider.

Maria: Pero era un programa muy importante. Los otros estudiantes eran de Latinoamérica. Yo había leído al Quijote. Pero ellos también leían a escritores como Borges, Fuentes, Mistral y a otros autores latinoamericanos.

Martina: After so much effort to mask her Latin American roots, now she didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about authors from her own region and in her native language.

Maria: Descubrí una triste realidad: pensar solo en inglés no era bueno. Tampoco era bueno tener vergüenza de mostrar mi cultura. Mis nuevos amigos conocían a mi cultura mejor que yo.

Martina: One of Maria’s classmates, Frank, had been reading poetry by Jose Martí since he was a kid in Cuba. Félix knew all about leftist politics in Chile. Javier could tell jokes in a Honduran slang that would leave everyone dying of laughter, but Maria didn’t get them. She remembers a party in the beginning of the program, where everyone was dancing cumbia.

Maria: Yo bailaba lento, sola. Javier me invitó a bailar con él. “¡No sé bailar muy bien!”, le dije. Él me respondió: “¡Eres muy gringa!” Y todos se rieron.

Martina: Yeah. Gringa. And Maria laughed with them, because she knew he didn’t say it with bad intentions. She was a little embarrassed, but not that paralyzing kind of shame from when she was younger. More of a sadness that they would see her as too much of a gringa.

Maria: Nací y crecí en Latinoamérica. Viajé por muchas ciudades hermosas. Pero mi música, comida y arquitectura favorita es la de mi país. Soy y siempre seré de Perú.

Martina: But it’s also true that at this point, Maria had spent the majority of her life in the United States. Her sense of humor, the way she dances, the way she expresses herself, all of it is more American than not. So this moment, when she struggled with being defined as a gringa, it ended up being almost like a revelation for her.

Maria: Soy peruana, pero también soy estadounidense. Ahora, soy periodista. Después de trabajar en Miami por cinco años, me mudé a Boston. Boston es muy diferente a Miami – no hay muchos latinos, hace frío, y casi nadie habla español. Ahora, además de ser periodista, soy maestra.

Martina: Now, in Boston, one of Maria’s freelance jobs is to teach creative writing to adults. One day, she arrived early to prepare for her class. While she was working, she overheard a man she didn’t know talking to a group of colleagues in the kitchen across the hall from her classroom.

Maria: El hombre hablaba de sus vacaciones en Perú, de la temperatura y de las comidas. El grupo estaba muy interesado en escuchar sobre Perú.

Martina: Exactly at that moment, a woman asked, did you eat anything weird? And Maria stopped working so she could listen more closely.

Maria: El hombre respondió: “No, pero los peruanos comen cuy”.

Martina: A cuy is a guinea pig.

Maria: Mi cara se puso roja, como en la escuela. Pero esta vez, no por la vergüenza.

Martina: “Guinea pigs? The same guinea pig we have as pets?” They asked. And he said he didn’t know because he hadn’t tried it.

Maria: Me paré. Fui a la cocina para beber agua y a escucharlos hablar.

Martina: One of the women went on to wonder out loud to the group why Peruvians would eat guinea pigs if they didn’t have that much meat, and at that moment Maria turned around and said to them:

Maria: “Hola, mi nombre es Maria. Yo soy de Perú. Sí, los peruanos comemos cuy. Sí, es un guinea pig. Y sí, es una comida exquisita para ocasiones especiales”.

Martina: It’s delicious, she told them, and it’s a key dish of Peruvian cuisine which is praised all over the world.

Maria: Esta vez, los que tenían vergüenza eran ellos.

Martina: Maria Murriel is a writer, journalist and podcast producer in Boston, Massachusetts. She teaches journalism and writing -- in English AND in Spanish. You can find a transcript of this story at podcast.duolingo.com. And don’t forget to subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app to hear other episodes. With over 200 million members, Duolingo is the world's largest online language learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes that everyone should have access to education of the highest quality for free. Learn more at duolingo.com. I´m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from shall555, InspectorJ and tim.kahn under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org, and was produced by Adonde Media.

Script Editor: Annie Avilés
Sound Designer: Isabel Vázquez
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga