What happens when the people of your birth country think you’re a foreigner?

Verónica Zaragovia in Cali, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Verónica Zaragovia.

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hands up who has a parent from another country. OK, maybe not hands up if you’re driving.

This is what a lot of us have in common: We feel fake when we root for our parent’s country.

If my Irish dad and I watched any kind of sporting contest involving an Irish man or woman, that was who we rooted for. Even Irish horses.

But, why feel fake? I’m Irish. I have citizenship through my Dad. I have a shedload of Irish relatives.

The thing is, I’ve never in Ireland. I don’t Irish.

Which is something the staff at my local Irish pub here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, like to remind me of. They call me “English Patrick.”

I’m hardly an extreme case. But Verónica Zaragovia is.

Verónica Zaragovia: When the World Cup’s on, there’s only one team for me.

Patrick Cox: Yup, I’d say that’s better than any Irish soccer song. But Verónica, I imagine you support Colombia for more than that?

Verónica Zaragovia: Well, I try to. But honestly, I feel self-conscious about it.

Patrick Cox: Why?

Verónica Zaragovia: Because Colombians — when they hear how I speak Spanish — they just don’t believe I’m one of them, which makes me kind of believe I’m not one of them.

It kept happening when I was last in Colombia. I spent six months filing news reports from there.

Here I am in a taxi and the driver’s saying he can’t quite place my accent.

Here’s another taxi driver. He says: “You’re not from Bogotá, are you?”

And this driver tells me I sound “Central American.”

This is my Colombian friend Sahay Perea, and she’s telling me I have a Mexican accent.

Patrick Cox: You seem to find that pretty funny.

Verónica Zaragovia: Yeah, what am I gonna do, cry? And the situation was so ridiculous. Sahay tells me that if she mentioned my name to any of her friends who met me, they’d just say, “Oh! The Mexican!”

Patrick Cox: Why Mexican? Have you ever lived there?

Verónica Zaragovia: No, never have! It seems to be what a lot of Colombians think if you’re a native Spanish speaker but they can’t figure out where from.

I love Mexico. I love Mexican culture. But I was born in Colombia! I have a Colombian passport and ID card. I can vote in Colombian elections.

I have the right to call myself Colombian. At least, I think I do.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox.

Today it’s Part 2 of our mini series, .

Last time, Kavita Pillay and I each tried to figure out why speak the way we do — and how react to it. Does our speech help us make friends, get jobs, get ahead in life? And what does it tell us about who we are?

Our story today is all about that last question: who we are — and what our speech reveals about that.

Verónica Zaragovia, in English, tells us about her Spanish.

Verónica Zaragovia: When I was just a year old, my grandfather’s brother was kidnapped. It was during Colombia’s civil war. There were many kidnappings, especially by guerrilla groups to finance their insurgency.

Fearing for our safety, my family decided to move. We left Colombia, and immigrated to the US, to Miami. Later, my great uncle was freed and joined us there.

Angelo Zaragovia with his baby daughter, Verónica, in Cali, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Verónica Zaragovia.

It was 35 years before I returned to the country of my birth for a big reporting project. To a country that was still healing after decades of killing and suffering at the hands of insurgents, soldiers and drug cartels.

Going back, I had the Spanish of course. I even had the Spanish words specific to Colombia. And the newer slang — I picked that up quickly. What was harder for me was to unlearn my way of speaking. The sing-songy way that everyone thinks is Mexican. I had to be aware of how I was pronouncing each syllable — and of course that made my speech sound unnatural.

One night at a party in Bogotá, I met a woman called Carolina Gómez. She told me she was born in the same city as me, Cali, and that she was a Spanish teacher. By this point I was so self-conscious of my accent that I blurted out to Carolina that I desperately wanted a Colombian accent. Everyone else in my paternal family has it. I wanted to speak with Colombian confidence, mannerisms and expressions.

Carolina was in. We agreed to meet for lessons.

Verónica Zaragovia: So I’m going to explain to you in English why I need your help.

Carolina Gómez: OK go ahead.

Verónica Zaragovia: I have this experience of being gone from Colombia pretty much my whole life. I love Mexico and Mexicans but I wanna be Colombian.

Carolina Gómez: Because you are.

Verónica Zaragovia: Because I am! So this is where you come in to help me. How did you write it? .

. Colombianize my way of speaking. I was looking to re-learn my accent. Growing up, I heard it around me, from family and friends but it was in Miami. Here, we were in the right place, the right context. Carolina got it.

Carolina Gómez: Helping people to recover their own stories. Those gaps in their lives that for me is like oh my god, it’s so good.

Verónica Zaragovia: So Carolina and I met for our lessons. I’d read and Carolina would correct my pronunciation.

The words I speak are not my problem. I use Colombian words, like carro for car. Mexicans say coche. Colombians say chaqueta for jacket. Mexicans say chamarra

I was going for the sound of Colombian Spanish. I gotta say I just love how that sounds. It’s so different from Mexican Spanish.

To my ears this is so different from Colombian Spanish because in Mexico, people pronounce syllables carefully. In Colombia, words are often shortened and sometimes the vowels are stretched out. I think in Mexico the way of speaking is tighter.

Verónica Zaragovia: My family hasn’t always lived in Colombia. My paternal grandfather was Jewish, from Polish-occupied Lithuania. Living in extreme poverty, he left for the Americas, eventually landing in Colombia.

His siblings moved, too. They were destitute, and that was fortunate, because it pushed them to get out before the Nazis invaded their homeland. Colombia gave them a new life.

We had a really big family there. My father and siblings were born in Colombia. As were my cousins, my sister and me. The stories they told each other — and us — had Colombian settings. And they all spoke Colombian Spanish.

That’s why I longed to reconnect with the Spanish of Colombia.

Verónica Zaragovia: I recently found out my mom — Stella Volosin — thinks about her own accent, too.

Stella Volosin: I think that I’m going to be better understood if I speak to an Argentine with an Argentinian accent or to a Colombian with a Colombian accent.

Verónica Zaragovia: My mom’s telling me this on a park bench. We’re keeping our social distance. The bench is outside of her apartment building in Miami. I’ve been back from my time in Colombia two years now.

My Mom’s trying to connect with a place in her past too. For her, it’s the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, where she grew up. She married my Colombian dad when she was 25. She left Argentina and she left her accent behind too. And that one is totally different from most Spanish languages. In Colombia you’d say “do you speak Spanish,” as “Tu hablas español?” And in Argentina they’d say, “Vos hablás castellano?”

Stella Volosin with her baby daughter, Verónica, in Cali, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Verónica Zaragovia.

Recently, my mom has been talking more Argentine Spanish, with expat friends in Miami. It sounds to me. The Spanish she spoke with me was kind of Colombianized. She switches between her different Spanishes a lot these days.

Verónica Zaragovia: And when you when your Spanish changes is it like you feel? Did it help you feel part of that? Does it does it help you feel more like part of that group as opposed because we’ve talked about how funny it sometimes is like if you’ll get a phone call and it’s me or dad or somebody then your accent changes when you when you’re in the company, every Argentine friends and they notice Do you think like what do you think it helps you feel more part of that group that you’re with?

Stella Volosin: I think so. I think so. Yeah, that’s, it makes me feel more part of that group. But really, really, for all foreigners And this goes further from just having an accent. Once you leave your country, the country you were born in, in the country where you grew up. You don’t belong anywhere. You’re just by yourself. You are, I could not say I’m Argentinian, or I’m Colombian or am American. I wish I could feel that I belong somewhere. But I really don’t. I could not name one country where I’m from. I’m a little bit part of all of those countries that I’ve lived in.

Verónica Zaragovia: Just before we all started staying at home because of the pandemic, I took my mom to an event at Florida International University. It was a series of lectures about language and identity called “What is LatinX?”

I asked the event’s organizer Phillip Carter if I could chat a bit with him about this topic. He’s a professor at the university who specializes in the various forms of Spanish language and culture among U.S. Latinos.

Talking to him, I felt like this angst over the role my accent plays in my identity wasn’t just in head.

Phillip Carter: Right, so that’s like the notion of living on the hyphen: you know, the Cuban-hyphen-American, Mexican-hyphen-American, Venezuelan-hyphen-American, that it’s neither here nor there. Of course it is a place it is a location. So people are talking about the hyphen-ness of those identity formations.

Verónica Zaragovia: Carter explains what he’s been told by those with feet in two worlds. Like someone born in Venezuela who grew up in the U-S.

Phillip Carter: When my parents take me home to Venezuela, I don’t feel like I fit in, but I also don’t feel, I feel that whatever it means, however mainstream American is constructed, I’m also not that thing.

Verónica Zaragovia: Living between these worlds, many of us feel pride speaking Spanish. I certainly do — I love meeting someone who prefers to speak in Spanish over English or if I read a book by a Latin American or Spanish author, I’ll definitely do it in Spanish. But others feel totally opposite to me. I ask Phillip about this. Spanish, he says, just makes some people feel sad or awkward.

Phillip Carter: Sometimes people say, “My mom yelled at me in that language. They made fun of me when I went to Colombia because I didn’t, I said instead of or whatever. They made fun of me.” And people carry around a lot of emotional baggage and they may blame it on their parents or they may blame it on the imposition of having to be bicultural or bilingual or whatever.

Verónica Zaragovia: Thinking about this, I realize I never felt upset or embarrassed about speaking Spanish only because I had the great luck of growing up in and around Miami. Everybody speaks Spanish here and if you don’t, you’re truly the outsider.

Phillip Carter: So for you, speaking Spanish is like this link to a place that you may have otherwise forgotten or depending on what age you were when you came, it represents — it signifies something important to you for your identity. It’s an important clutch. Whereas for other people, it’s I didn’t ask for this, it’s like a burden. And everything in between.

Verónica Zaragovia: This is totally new to me, this idea of a burden. Of the past being a burden delivered through language. Until this conversation with Phillip, the only burden I’d been feeling was not sounding Colombian enough.

I called my friend and Colombian Spanish tutor — Carolina. I wanted to vent to her that after all the lessons she gave me, after all this time, I still sound the same way.

I ask her when I’m speaking to her now, does she think I could be Colombian? Or not really.

Verónica Zaragovia: She says I sound like I have a Miami accent — a combination of all those accents from across Latin America that are so deeply rooted in the city now. Over time, because people stayed in Miami, a new accent is forming — or maybe a few new accents. “I think that’s what’s going on with your accent,” Carolina tells me.

She says I do sometimes have a Colombian way of speaking. My sentence structure is Colombian, and certain expressions — I learned some new ones on my recent trip!. But the tone — there’s an undeniable influence she says another place or two.

I’ve always loved how Carolina speaks. But as we talk, I’m sensing that a little envious of accent.

Verónica Zaragovia: It’s like a song, she says to me. “It’s super cool. And it gets people asking, wondering about the journey of your accent — all those places you can hear in it.”

OK, I may be on the verge of actually liking how I speak. If it tells a story that’s rich in places and people, that sounds pretty OK to me.

When I tell people I grew up in Miami, they think of the art deco buildings in Miami Beach. Sure, it’s a beautiful place. But I’ve come to appreciate the greater beauty of Miami: the diversity of accents; people from all over Latin and South America. The diversity of stories. Tragic, epic, comic stories.

So many people in Miami yearn to stay connected to the countries they grew up in. But we’re not in those places. We’re here, and we’re speaking our own brand of Spanish. It’s the glory of Miami. In the space of a few minutes, you can hear Peruvian, Venezuelan, Argentine, and of course Cuban.

I love this about Miami. I do.

But still….I really want to speak the language of my dad’s family of my own birth.

I’m still hoping that someday my Spanish will sound truly Colombian.

A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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