I was standing in line at the grocery store when I overheard the woman in front of me reprimand her rambunctious son. “Ni te lo ocurra,” she said in a stern voice. (Don’t even think about it!) She finished checking out, and as she was looking for a credit card, the check-out lady asked her in English if she had a store rewards card. The confusion on the woman’s face was undeniable—and I jumped in. “Tiene una tarjeta de la tienda?” (Do you have a store card?) No, she did not, and when the check-out lady offered her the form to fill out, I instinctively echoed her instructions in Spanish—even as I noted that the woman was, indeed, understanding. After the woman left, the check-out lady apologized—she only speaks a few words of Spanish. I allowed that growing up in a Spanish-speaking context gave me an understandable advantage.
I was vaguely aware of some embarrassment. I didn’t want to be a show-off, and wanted to make my Spanish capacity seem an accident of fate instead of the result of some personal genius. My over-active inner voice then asked why I thought I was showing off. Wasn’t I just helping build bridges like I normally do, between people of different cultures and languages—especially when the two cultures and languages are White-Anglo-Saxon-English and Brown-Latin-American-Spanish? Isn’t that what I do? Isn’t that who I am? Wasn’t I an enormous help, a godsend appearing miraculously in an impossible situation, saving the day in the nick of time? (Voila, a new superhero is born!)
On the way back to my truck I became distinctly aware of my own desire to be needed, to be useful in some way, and that filling in the gaps between English-speakers and Spanish-speakers is one of the biggest things I think I give the world. But maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t quite as essential to the conversation as I would like to imagine. If I am really building bridges, it can’t ultimately be about the bridge, but the people who cross over it.
There are gaps within me that still need filling in.