Intern Blog: Language and Power

Ryan Nilsen, NFWM intern through Duke Divinity School

Ryan Nilsen

Ryan Nilsen

As Octavio and I walked up to the front step of an old trailer next to a tobacco field outside of Gibsonville, North Carolina, I asked him, “Do you mind speaking first again?” He smiled and said, “No problem, man.” It was an early summer Sunday afternoon, and we were doing outreach, trying to meet farm workers who live in this area and gauge their interest in participating in a pilot English class we were organizing in partnership with a local adult literacy agency.

By most peoples’ standards, I wouldn’t be considered shy, and I think I speak Spanish about as well as any non-native speaker from suburban Raleigh would be expected to. I have been studying the language on and off for probably thirteen of my twenty four years. While I’ve only taken it seriously for the last four years or so, I began learning the basics in a public elementary school classroom in third grade. More recently, I’ve taken university level courses, participated in language exchange programs, and spent months in Guatemala for the sole purpose of learning to communicate better in this language that has become increasingly more important in our state.

Despite all of this, I quickly noticed in our first few days of outreach that when Octavio speaks first, the depth and ease of our conversation jumps to a remarkably different level than when I lead. The workers don’t have to slow down and look directly at Octavio when they speak. He’s outgoing and easy to talk with, a native Spanish speaker, and a former farm worker himself. Even if I can usually communicate the ideas I’d like to get across well enough, I less often understand exactly what is said to me without some repetition or guessing on my part. While I could probably fumble through the job without Octavio, everything would be substantially more awkward and difficult. I’ve decided, for the time being, that it’s best to let him lead the conversation and just listen and chime in when I can. Without fail, I end up asking him some question of clarification on what exactly was said when we get back to the car. Fortunately, he’s nice about it.

While I’ve naturally found this frustrating and wish my Spanish were more natural and fluent, the experience has forced me to reflect on how challenging day to day life must end up being at times for people who live in North Carolina but don’t speak English as their first language. Even if you’ve had the opportunity to study for years and can communicate pretty well, the most basic conversations with people simply don’t go nearly as smoothly. Without even considering racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, there are a lot of people around here who simply are not as patient with people who don’t speak English as I’ve found most farm workers to be with me and my Spanish. I can’t imagine trying to do something as complicated as negotiating wages, understanding pesticide safety instructions, or issuing a request for housing repairs in a foreign language. In some situations, language is power, and ninety four percent of farm workers in our country speak Spanish as their first language. Through my own struggles with Spanish, I am learning the degree to which language can add to a whole host of other challenges that farm workers face in their work and lives in the United States.

As we knock on the door, I hear, “Pasa adelante,” from a voice inside which we would find out a moment later belonged to a Mexican man named Francisco who has been coming to the United States as an H-2A worker for ten years but hasn’t had the opportunity to learn much English in that time.

“Gracias. ¡Buenas tardes! Soy Octavio.”

“Y me llamo Ryan,” I add.

Octavio continues, “Trabajamos por un grupo llamado el Ministerio Nacional de Trabajadores Agrícolas…” I’m really glad he’s with me.

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