Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Spanish at Massey College: One Language, Two Worlds (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Amanda Harvey-Sanchez

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

A key feature that emerged during my research at Massey College is the role of language in subtle means of politics. For the purposes of my final paper I focused on English language, but there are some reflections on the role of Spanish at Massey that emerged in my fieldnotes and which I turn to here. In particular, I discuss the use and value of Spanish for different groups at Massey as well as my own relationship to the language and how it can be explained.

Language as Solidarity and Feeling Like a Fraud

Massey has a regular cooking staff who cook and serve the meals that Junior Fellows at the college eat. Many of the staff are immigrants from Latin American countries, and so Spanish is the main language which they speak. Being half-Mexican myself, I understand their conversations but initially preferred not to participate in them since I lack fluency in Spanish. Thus, for my first couple of weeks at the college, my interactions with the cooking staff were limited to “good morning” and “how are you?”

My own lack of Spanish fluency can be summarized as follows: My mother is Mexican and I was fluent in Spanish as a child, but mostly lost my Spanish when I started school because my mother – in an effort to help me fit in amongst my peers – stopped speaking to me in Spanish. I now inhabit a somewhat awkward, liminal space between complete lack of Spanish ability and complete fluency, where my Mexican heritage implies the fluency which I lack, and where my broken Spanish is something I feel obligated to explain if and when my connection to the language is revealed. For the most part, I choose to sidestep this knot in my identity by not drawing attention to being Mexican, allowing my white-passing privilege to obscure the threads in my heritage which bind me to Spanish.

That changed one day at lunch when a friend at Massey told one of the cooking staff, Luz, that I speak Spanish; I could see her whole face light up. I explained in Spanish my predicament, ironically giving the impression that I am more fluent than I am because, having had to explain this situation numerous times before, I am able to do so easily in Spanish. The result of this revelation has been a shift in my relationship with Luz. Now, we communicate only in Spanish, but more importantly we have also become friends (of sorts). The depth and volume of conversation has only increased marginally, but there is a sense of connection in speaking Spanish together. This is amplified within the context of Massey having very few visibly Latinx students. Spanish is a form of solidarity for those who are bound to it through a shared cultural heritage.

Despite enjoying this newfound friendship and my sense of connection with Luz, I cannot help feeling a bit like a fraud. This feeling came into relief one day at breakfast. Luz used an expression I did not recognize, and noted that the expression is Mexican. There was a moment of silence – a very brief, but noticeable rupture in the conversation – and then Luz, sensing my embarrassment, filled the gap. “Your mother probably never used that expression with you” she offered in Spanish, and the conversation continued. I understand Luz’s reply as a means to address my feeling of inadequacy in not being familiar with the expression. She shifts the blame away from me personally and towards my upbringing, smoothing over this rupture in the conversation and allowing our connection through language to persist.

One Language, Two Worlds

The following day there was going to be a “Spanish table” at lunch – a table where people who want to converse in Spanish sit and eat together. My interaction with Luz still fresh in my mind, I walked eagerly towards the Spanish table. I only realized this after the fact, but I had been hoping to find something “political” at the Spanish table: some discussion of multiculturalism, multilingualism, perhaps some other students with hyphenated last-names. To my disappointment, the conversation was entirely neutral. Moreover, nobody there was Latinx and all except for two at the table were white.

Asking those around the table how they had learned Spanish, I was struck by the fact that for everyone else speaking Spanish is something to show-off. My own feelings of inadequacy and ambivalence seemed rather silly as I listened to those around me fumble with different phrases, enjoying the process of improving their Spanish and taking pride in the abilities they already possessed. It occurred to me that the Spanish my mother had spoken to me as a child and which I now spoke with Luz may not in fact be the same Spanish of the Spanish table.

Part of this difference pertains to capital. There is capital in speaking another language in that it is a marker of being “cultured” – it forms part of the broader roster of “long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body” which Bourdieu terms “embodied cultural capital” (Bourdieu 1986: 84). Acquisition of embodied cultural capital, in this case learning Spanish, constitutes “work on oneself”, and it requires investment of time. It is no accident, then, that it is students at Massey who have picked up Spanish for fun while the cooking staff have learned English out of necessity. Unlike the Spanish shared between Luz and myself, the Spanish of the Spanish table is not a marker of Latinx culture, but rather a marker of the ability to accumulate languages as forms of capital.

Multilingualism is prized, but there is a catch. Anthropologist Jonathan Rosa writes about this in the context of American raciolinguistics and English language learners: “Whereas multilingualism – framed as a process of learning Spanish and other languages – is promoted for elite Whites to maintain their privileged position across societal domains, English monolingualism – framed as a process of Spanish language loss involving perpetual designation as an English language learner – is often seen as the path to inclusion and prosperity for Latinas/os and other ethnoracially minoritized groups” (Rosa 2015: 108).

Rosa’s analysis pertains to English language learners specifically, but it also helps frame my own situation. Whereas my loss of Spanish is a marker of my successful integration into mainstream White society – something I was able to achieve with essentially no effort because of my mother’s actions and my skin colour – for the other students at the table their acquisition of Spanish is a piece of cultural capital propping them up in the broader social terrain. It is this difference which subsequently makes speaking Spanish a source of ambivalence for me while it is a source of pride for others at the Spanish table (and for visibly Latinx students, it may in other situations become a source of shame).

Returning to where I began this reflection, speaking to the cooking staff, we can now begin to see some of the worlding capacity in language. This worlding, like the politics I write about in my paper, transpires subtlety even as it occurs in plain view. It is articulated within the dining hall of Massey and visible in those few steps which lie between the serving table and the dining table. While Spanish is both the language of the immigrant, Latinx cooking staff and the language of privileged, cosmopolitan students at the Spanish table, its function and value is entirely different in each context. Spanish at Massey encompasses one language, but two very different worlds.


Bourdieu, Pierre

1986 Chapter 6 The Forms of Capital. In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J Richardson, ed. 83-95. New York: Greenwood.

Rosa, Jonathan

2015 Racializing language, regimenting Latinas/os: Chronotope, social tense, and American raciolinguistic futures. Language and Communication 46: 106-117.


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