From the Desk of the Council: Spring Break Reflection

One of the core missions of the Honors Diversity Council is to serve as a voice for marginalized communities on campus and foster a sense of belonging. Their weekly blog posts discuss the experience of students with marginalized identities/and or how the University community can be a more inclusive environment for everyone. This week, Koro Castillo reflects on the problems bilingual students face in a monolingual society.

As I return from a spring break trip to Miami, I feel inspired to talk about language.  

Growing up as a Spanish speaker in Iowa was tough, and the toughest part for me was maintaining my Spanish abilities. This maintenance was so tough that for many years I shamed myself for slowly losing my “perfect” Spanish. Upon birth, my parents only spoke to me in Spanish, knowing that it was the only way I could learn the language, since I would be growing up in Iowa. Up until the age of two, when I started daycare, I rarely heard English, but it wasn’t enough. Daycare quickly brought me into the English-speaking world and placed me in a linguistic situation that exclusively offered English as the social language. To me, all kids spoke English, including my younger brother, who, according to my parents, I rarely addressed in Spanish, as he was a kid, too.  

Throughout my childhood, my parents continued to speak to me in Spanish, and tried their hardest to expose my brother and me to the language as much as they could, by spending a month out of each year in Spain. It wasn’t enough.  

What happens to Spanish speakers in Iowa saddens me. Many of us are brought up by Spanish-speaking families, but quickly are swept up in a monolingual society once we enter school. Our parents may continue to speak to us in Spanish, but our social and academic lives weigh on us too much, and English begins to dominate our language abilities.  

I punish myself for letting English become my dominant language, as if it’s something that I can control, but the truth is that I can’t control how English dominates my life in Iowa. Some may wonder why I don’t just speak Spanish at home, or why I didn’t take Spanish in high school to supplement my abilities. It seems like a simple fix, but it’s not. In my youth, I often thought to myself: What purpose is Spanish bringing me if I can’t use it to further my academic career? What purpose does Spanish serve me if I can’t use it to speak to my friends? What purpose does Spanish serve if I get dirty looks for speaking it in public? 

I was lucky enough to find bits and pieces of Spanish to keep me afloat. A trip here, a TV show there, a run-in with a family friend, an encounter at a Hispanic-owned business, the opportunity to major in Spanish here at the University of Iowa… 

Miami was another bit that sparked up my language. The city vibrantly portrays a pan-Hispanic culture, welcoming to all that speak Spanish in a way I haven’t observed anywhere else. In Miami, even my blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother was addressed in Spanish, despite her very White-looking, English-speaking appearance. For the first time in a long time, I was empowered to embrace my Spanish while in the United States. Not only did I speak it in public but found myself speaking it to my parents in moments when I usually would’ve spoken English!  

My trip to Miami highlighted the importance of empowering bilinguals to speak all their languages, and the best way to facilitate this is to accept and build multilingual communities. My hope is that Iowa will someday achieve this, as local Spanish speakers like me deserve to see themselves and their language as a valued part of everyday society.  

Some notes: 

  • I must acknowledge that it’s a privilege to learn and to know English. I am very lucky to have experienced early exposure and education, as English is very hard to learn as a second language.  
  • Most of this thinking was sparked by a class I am taking this semester called Intro to Bilingualism. It’s taught by the wonderful Dr. Christine Shea. I highly recommend to any and all Spanish students! 

About the author:
Koro Castillo (she/her/hers) is a first-year student pursuing majors in Spanish and Philosophy and a certificate in Latin American Studies. She is passionate about learning new things, supporting her peers, and exploring global and multicultural educational opportunities. In her free time, Koro enjoys music, dance, and spending time with her friends.


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