So, even though I am Cuban, I didn't grow up speaking Spanish. I learned in school, taking all the classes the community college offered. I took a Medical Spanish class, trying to fill in the spots regular classes couldn't touch. However, it took a LONG time before I spoke fluent OB Spanish.
Even though my Spanish wasn't perfect, I wanted to work with the migrant women in San Diego, so I started volunteering at Planned Parenthood in their prenatal program. I nudged my way into a doula position because I was willing to come to the clinic, meet the women and then go with them when they went into labor. Initially, I told the hospital I was a translator. I explained it that I was not only translating Spanish & English, but that I was translating Medicalese. Over and over, I helped women have their babies in the hospital. I racked up a great number of births this way, learning so much along the way.
With my very first Planned Parenthood client, I was very nervous, but I pretended I wasn't. I sure-footedly walked into the triage room, sitting with the mom who was in kickin' labor. The nurse came in and asked me to have the woman move her bottom towards the end of the table so she could be examined. Whew! I knew these words! "Por favor, muevate tu culo mas abajo." The woman, in the middle of a contraction, sat bolt upright and said, "COMO?!?" Baffled, I repeated what I'd said and she just rolled her eyes at me and went on through her labor. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I *knew* these words... of all the words I knew, I learned these as a child. "Besa me culo!" my family would shout at each other. "Kiss my butt!" I labored with her, am guessing I didn't make any other disgusting comments because she held my hand as I breathed with her the rest of the time.
The next day, back at Planned Parenthood, I began telling the birth story, starting in triage. I told them I wasn't sure what happened, but when I said, "Por favor, muevate tu culo..." and the room ERUPTED in laughter. What had I said?! They couldn't stop laughing, tears streaming down their faces. Finally, while I sat there totally embarrassed waiting to hear what was so funny, someone wheezed, "You told her to move her fucking ass down to the end of the table." HUH?!? Apparently, "culo" is a vile vulgar word in Mexican Spanish. When I went to go see her postpartum, I apologized profusely, in my broken, embarrassed Spanish. She laughed and let me know it was fine.
In my quest to learn obstetric Spanish as well as get a foothold as a midwife, I went to Casa de Nacimiento in El Paso, Texas for 3 months in 1993. I learned quickly and learned a LOT. It was great! I began dreaming in Spanish and the words came to my tongue quickly from my brain. After Casa, I worked at the Farmworker Association of Florida (in Orlando) under a CDC Grant to teach Hispanic women HIV/STD prevention techniques. Allllll in Spanish. Feeling better about my language skills, I could feel there would be gaping holes still lurking. Whenever I began a class, I told them my "culo" story, bringing them to hysterical laughter, but it illustrated the point that if I said something stupid or rude, it is because my Spanish sucks, not because I am a jerk.
After several years in Orlando, I headed back to San Diego, where, once there, I spent a little over a year (total) at Casa to gather education, experience and numbers so I could eventually sit for the license in CA. I would come and go from El Paso, but it didn't take 48 hours there before I was once again dreaming in Spanish. I was more fluent than I ever imagined, being able to do complete prenatal and postpartum counseling as well as speaking to the family, no matter where they came from around Mexico.
So, it was amusing as crap when I was talking to a father who'd stepped out to let his wife deliver the placenta and be sutured. He asked if he could go back in yet and I said a phrase I had said at least 100 times before: La partera esta cocinando la vagina. The husband turned his head sideways and asked, "Cosiendo?" and I nodded happily. ("Wasn't that what I said?" I said in my head.) And I was off shift and went on my merry way.
2 hours later, I am in the kitchen where the interns all hung out and slept and I was making Rice-a-Roni... standing there... saying to myself, "Estoy cocin-an-do..." OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!! All those years I was saying the midwife was COOKING the vagina, not SEWING the vagina! I fell on the floor laughing and could barely stop until I saw that family again 2 days later. I laughed and laughed, telling the husband how many DOZENS of times I had said that to a husband and NONE of them corrected me! I thanked him profusely for getting the vagina out of the kitchen.
Another smaller gaffe I have done is with the words "estrella" and "estrilla" - very similar in English, but words apart in Spanish. I would have a woman lying on the table during her prenatal and rub her stretch marks and tell her how BEAUTIFUL her estrellas were. Uh... estrellas are "stars" - estrillas are "stretch marks". I could always get a chuckle from women as I told them what a beautiful night it was, the moon and all those stretch marks in the sky.
Even now, many, many years later, I am always wary of the words that might spill out of my mouth. Are they colloquial? Did they come from my family? Is the woman Mexican? Puerto Rican? All of these different aspects come into play, just as if we were working with a woman from Canada, Great Britain or Georgia.
I love that I speak Spanish, but I also love that I can laugh at my second language skills. Always triving. Always striving.
My Grandmother Almerinda "Mami" holding my dad... la Havana, Cuba... 1940.