Elisabet Raquel García (she/they) shares how language barriers prevented her from connecting with her family and how her determination to build a relationship prompted her to become a fluent Spanish speaker in five years. Watch or read the interview below.
My name is Elisabet Raquel García and I am a Global Education DEI Specialist. I'm also a multi-cultural Latina who grew up not speaking Spanish or knowing anything about who I was or where I came from.
How has learning Spanish influenced your personal and professional life?
Learning Spanish has changed everything for me, both personally and professionally.
Personally, re-acquiring my Spanish skills meant reconnecting with my long-lost family, friends, and loved ones, which I, unfortunately, couldn’t do before. When I first met my family in Chile, I was absolutely ashamed that I couldn’t communicate with them, and I struggled to connect through my hodgepodge mix of Portuguese, Spanish, and English. I lost the opportunity to talk with my grandparents, neighbors, and community for such a long time. After meeting them, I decided that I would dedicate myself to bettering my Spanish skills so that I could come back and truly connect with them.
Since learning Spanish and now speaking it almost fluently, I’ve reconnected with my long-lost family across Latin America. I’ve built more relationships with people from all walks of life and across different language barriers. Professionally, I’ve pursued an international career as a Global Education DEI Specialist, and I work with folks worldwide.
So you’ve spent time in Mexico and Chile; what influenced you to go to that location?
After my embarrassing experience with not being able to communicate with my family in Chile, I devised a plan to return to the country with better Spanish skills to connect with them. I decided to go back to my home university and complete the Spanish language series. Afterward, I studied abroad in México to reconnect with my paternal roots and practice my Spanish so that I could return to Chile and connect with my long-lost family.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Advice that I would give to my younger self would be to hold on to your heritage and language skills with all your might. They are your divine right.
You shouldn’t feel pressured into anglicizing yourself or shedding yourself of your heritage to fit the mold of expectations for racialized people in the U.S.
We should be proud of who we are, where we come from, the languages we speak, and the heritages we practice. And it is our right to be proud of all of those aspects of our identities.
Why should underrepresented individuals care about learning other languages?
All folks should care about learning languages - whether it’s their heritage language and/or other languages. Historically underserved individuals - those who are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Disabled, and more, should dedicate themselves to learning languages because it can help leverage the playing field for them in a world that was designed against our favor.
Learning a language can open up a world of opportunities in different countries that would not be readily accessible to us in the U.S. due to the discrimination we face.
You will find that going to other countries (particularly your home countries) as a person who speaks English, comes from the U.S., and is fluent in the local language, will place you on a whole new level of privilege and opportunity.
I know this because this has been my case, especially in México, where I’ve built connections with everyone from locals to government officials.
What are your favorite language resources?
My favorite language resources are other people who speak the language - I think they’re the best resource for learning a language. Especially language teachers and people from local communities, these two are the absolute best when it comes to refining language skills so that you can learn “formal” language skills to the day-to-day colloquial language that folks speak, too.
What opportunities should the education industry explore to strengthen the intersection between language learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Some opportunities that the education industry should further explore to strengthen the intersection between language learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion include heritage and diasporic language programs that allow students to immerse themselves in the cultures and languages of their homelands. Think study abroad experiences, but customized for heritage and diasporic language learners (and that does its part to create equitable access to all diverse participants). That would be an absolute dream.
I participated in a program like this with the Mexican Government in 2019 and 2021. It’s called Cultural Immersion and Volunteer Program for Young Students of Mexican Origin, and it was absolutely life-changing. Two hundred twenty-five students of Mexican Origin came from the U.S. and Canada. The Mexican Government hosted it in Mexico to reconnect with our roots while volunteering and engaging with important people across the country.
While the program didn’t primarily focus on language development, all events and communications were conducted in Spanish, so participants were fully immersed in the cultural-linguistic experience. I would love to see more programs like this - for folks of all heritages and languages!
What advice do you have for others pursuing language studies?
Some advice I have is never to forgo fluency in your heritage or diasporic language. I learned Portuguese by studying abroad in Brazil before learning Spanish in my countries of origin - México, and Chile. I felt so ashamed of not knowing Spanish and uncomfortable to know that I pursued learning another language - Portuguese - before learning my own heritage language - Spanish.
The experience of being in Brazil and communicating in Portuguese but not in Spanish inspired me to pursue learning Spanish. It was a big wake-up call that I was putting in a lot of effort to learn another language other than my heritage one when in fact, I couldn't even speak to my loved ones because of the language barrier.
I know other language learners who studied a language other than their heritage or diasporic language first (for a multitude of reasons); or those who don't pursue further developing their heritage or diasporic language skills because they feel they "speak it enough." But from personal experience, I'm begging folks to start with their heritage or diasporic language first and never stop developing these language skills.
Take that class. Live in your countries of origin or diasporic ties. Study the language. Practice. Practice. Practice. Read in that language. Perfect your writing in that language.
It's been five years since I pursued learning Spanish, and I'm proud to say that I'm now (almost) fluent. I can converse with folks from all walks of life - from friends and family in the campo and pueblo to professionals and politicians. It's changed absolutely everything for me.
What is a quote that inspires you today and why?
One of my favorite pieces of enthusiasm someone once told me was: “Si se puede, todo se puede,” which means: “You can do it. You can do anything”.
Si se puede is a popular Mexican phrase. And the “todo se puede” part comes from something a friend told me back in Chile. Putting those two phrases together pieces my two hertiages together. This phrase, Si se puede, todo se puede, stays with me and I apply it to everything that I pursue, including language. I knew that I had to learn Spanish, and so I did. And it changed everything for me.
Elisabet Raquel García (she/they) is a Global Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion specialist who used her time abroad to study her homeland, reconnect with her roots, and re-acquired her language skills. Elisabet supports historically underserved students in international education and is a multi-cultural Latina of Mexican and Chilean origin.
Connect with Elisabet on LinkedIn and by email (Elisabet.Raquel.Garcia@gmail.com) and be sure to mention this article in your connection request.