By Jocari Peralta –
I remember being a kid, seeing my mother force her tongue to make love to a language dressed in a suit and tie. The tie always appeared to be on too tight around her neck. I remember hearing her attempt to say the word “library” for the first time. A simple word, and yet her mouth could not produce an authentic American accent when she would say the word. I’d laugh at how she’d roll the “R.” We’d both look at each other, and without any words agree to switch back to Spanish because library was biblioteca. Speaking in Spanish, my mom didn’t get laughed at or feel less than. She did feel safe.
I dated a Puerto Rican guy once who asked about my family. He said one day he’d like to come over to meet my mom. He wasn’t raised speaking Spanish, so even though we were surrounded by the language in our school and in our neighborhoods, he struggled with it. One day he asked me, “So your mom, she speaks English, right?” His voice quivered as he posed the question. I stared into his eyes and without any hesitation, I answered, “No.” His expression fell flat as he nervously scratched his scalp and contemplated how this was going to work. I giggled as I reassured him that I would translate. He sighed in relief, and we went back to playing Call of Duty, eating pizza, and wasting life.
But today, I wonder why I answered, “No.”
My mother does speak English, just like I speak Wolof.
Today, I know that speaking has nothing to do with perfection. If people wanted to know my mother’s level of fluency, they could have tested it themselves by simply having a conversation with her. However, I’d never let them because I was always so concerned with sheltering her and guarding her heart.
But that is not life. In life, as I am just discovering now, you cannot always be guarded. You have to make mistakes to learn and grow stronger for the future.
If today someone were to ask me if my mother speaks English, I’d smile and say, “Yes,” because she does. She is not fluent, but that’s not what I was asked. People rarely ask if you are fluent in a language. What I’ve observed is that the most important thing is getting your point across and creating a connection with someone through the language you are speaking—whether that be Body, Spanish, English, French or Wolof. Language exists to bring my ideas closer to yours and vice versa.
I’m currently in Khombole, Senegal—a medium-sized town not too far from the noisy city of Thiés. There’s lots of sand and lots of assumptions on this side of the map. But every day I have the privilege to bust those assumptions and connect with humanity in a language foreign to my tongue, but familiar to my heart.
I’m learning Wolof, and soon I will be learning French (inshallah). The process has been anything but easy. However, I am content because I am no longer confused about my purpose here like I was when I first arrived. I know now that my sole purpose here is to make people smile. And not just here, but all around the world.
When I first stepped foot on the burning Sahara Desert sand in Khombole, I was hopeless. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in Senegal. How would I communicate to my new family that I wasn’t fond of meat, that sometimes I like to sleep in, and that I am the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic? How could I communicate that I do clean, but I don’t cook because my mother did not teach me, even though this is rare in my culture in which women usually learn to cook as early as the age of five? How would I communicate more pointless things that I didn’t realize they didn’t have to know to understand who I am or where I come from?
I’ve learned to communicate the things that DO matter to my host family with the little bit of Wolof that I do speak and with my body language. I’ve also found Google Translate quite handy, even if the translation isn’t always spot on. We’ve found a way to make it work.
They’ve found out all by themselves that I don’t eat meat when I push it away with my spoon. They know that sometimes I need to sleep in because I’m drained after long days of having to force my brain to communicate in a foreign language. And as far as where I come from, I’ve been able to show them that with a map. They know I can clean, since any opportunity I get, I try to help around the house. I’ve been able to explain personal things about myself with the amount of Wolof I’ve learned as well—things that I never thought I’d be so interested in sharing.
It really has been made clear to me that the things we choose to share with others say a lot about who we are. Not only that, but the things that we first want to learn how to say in a new language reflect what we think will help us better connect with people.
Dama fooberekat ci Améric. I am a cleaner in America.
This was back when I didn’t know how to express myself in past tense, but it works. I was able to successfully express that I worked as a cleaner or “maid” in the U.S., busting preexisting notions about what Americans are like in the minds of the Senegalese. Of course, this statement raised other questions. Many people were probably unconvinced by it, considering it came from a Toubab, or foreigner. However, I shared a piece of myself with my friends and family because I want them to understand my story. One day I hope I can understand theirs.
And that is the beauty of language.
About Jocari Peralta
Jocari Peralta, a current Fellow with Global Citizen Year, is passionate about life and all of its beauty. She is involved in her local church, where she sings and shares her spiritual testimonies with others. She gives back to her impoverished, drug-infested community by volunteering at a soup kitchen, where she serves food for different families and other people who express need. She is also very involved in YouTube, where she chooses to share her story with the hopes of impacting others’ lives positively and inspiring growth. Her goals for the year are to explore another culture and learn a new language, to experience life and make a difference, to grow as a human being, and acquire more stories to tell. She is inspired by people and the way that they move, think, and feel about life.