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Opinion | Some Words Feel Truer in Spanish

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Other times, it’d be my sister and I who were curious about a word’s Spanish counterpart. Was there really no differentiating in Spanish between the fingers (dedos) on our hands, and those on our feet we call toes? When we wanted to say we were excited about something, the word “emocionada” seemed to fall short of capturing our specific, well, emotion. Sometimes we would blank on a word. But sometimes, we would find that the perfect word isn’t necessarily in the language we’re speaking.

What I’m describing, of course, has its own word: code switching. The act of shifting from one language or dialect to another, particularly based on social context, is often framed as something that so-called minorities do to fit into more mainstream spaces. It’s true that code switching can be a form of assimilation, a way of shielding ourselves from the prejudices rooted in racism, classism and xenophobia that can arise when we freely express our culture and language in spaces not designed to embrace them. But what I seldom see discussed is how code switching isn’t solely a reactionary response to feeling unwelcome. Within our own communities, it can signal comfort and belonging.

Take the Spanish word “maleta,” or “suitcase” in English. This year, I was at a writing conference and met up with two Mexican American authors, one of whom brought her suitcase to the venue because she had already checked out of the hotel. We walked the halls and offered to help with her maleta, making several jokes and references to it, but never once using the word “suitcase,” despite speaking mainly in English.

This was an entirely natural and unspoken decision. There are some words that simply feel truer in Spanish than they do in English. I call these home words and heart words because I associate them with the place I most grew up using them: at home, among family. Though the words might share a literal definition with their translation, one version carries emotional depth that enriches its meaning. To code switch this way among friends implies we share not only a language, but an intimate understanding of where we come from.

A suitcase is for clothes and possessions when someone travels, but to me, a maleta meant family had arrived from Peru, carrying flavors, textures and memories of my birthplace. Language is rooted in context, which is another way of saying that language is driven by memory. In this way, what we do or don’t choose to translate is another way of telling stories about our past.

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