Tue, May

Broken Spanish but a Solid Connection 


LAUSD SCHOOL BOARD - Being bilingual opens doors but can also lead to stumbles on the way in.

But as I learned in the course of talking with local voters last week about Dr. Rocío Rivas — who in this election seeks to bring the voice of a parent of a current student in L.A. public schools to the LAUSD Board — it’s the stumbles that can help create memorable communication and even mutual respect.  

There are days and moments when my Spanish flows as freely as my English and other times when I question if I can call myself fluent. I grew up speaking Spanglish at home, with an emphasis on casual, everyday conversations. Subbing an English word in a largely Spanish sentence and vice versa was the norm.  

Certain realms of knowledge and vocabulary remain entirely relegated to one language. My abuela (grandmother) for example will only count in Spanish. Numerics are more comfortable for her in her native language, despite having lived in California for longer than she lived in Bolivia.  

If I’m startled or see something cute, my reaction is always Spanish despite English being my predominant language. It’s almost like certain parts of my being are programmed in Spanish, while others are wholly English.  

In late October, I was honored to join the campaign of Dr. Rocío Rivas for L.A. School Board as a Coro Fellow to build my practical understanding of campaign strategy and activities. Last week, in one of my first assignments of engaging with voters in Board District 2, which Dr. Rivas is running to represent, I visited the neighborhood of East Los Angeles. A strong majority of residents speaks Spanish, and I was excited to explore my communication skills in a language that is familiar but in an application that is still new to me: voting and elections.  

As part of my mission as a Coro Fellow, I got involved in canvassing in Los Angeles about a month ago, phone banking for the first time for the city proposition to allocate funds to prevent people from falling into homelessness, Measure ULA. Many of the door-to-door interactions I had were largely in English, and I still had yet to make my first all-Spanish pitch to a voter. I knew it was coming, and I was a bit nervous, knowing I would trip over certain words that were newer to my Spanish repertoire: candidata (candidate) or Mesa Directiva de LAUSD (School Board). I would quietly practice the pronunciation of “distrito,” as my English kept cutting in to add a “c” near the end. 

My moment of truth came during a visit to the Eastside L.A. neighborhood of Lincoln Heights on the public sidewalk outside Gates Street Elementary School. I had prepared by walking over to the local panadería (bakery) for some pan dulce and, because it was about to be Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), some pan de muertos for my home’s ofrenda (altar, in remembrance of loved ones lost, including photos and items greatly meaningful to them).  

The atmosphere of the cafe felt familiar, a Spanglish environment, and I exhaled in advance of my voter outreach with parents outside the school. I sent off a few emails and headed back to the school to meet Dr. Rivas, cafecito in hand. The first few interactions were quick: parents hurrying to collect their kids from school. I passed one woman on the sidewalk and, extending my pink flyer, opened with my usual, “Are you a voter in District 2?” She hesitated, “Sorry … my English … .” So I switched over, greeting her and introducing myself in Spanish, and she smiled broadly.  

Our opening conversation flowed freely. She was picking up her son, had the baby back at home, and was a registered voter but had not yet heard of Dr. Rivas. I explained how Dr. Rivas “sería el único miembro de la Mesa que es un padre de un estudiante actual de LAUSD y la única en esta elección que tiene su doctorado,” [that is: She’d be the only Board member who’s the parent of a current LAUSD student and the only one vying for this open seat with a PhD.]  

But, sure enough, I blanked on Spanish for “candidate.” So I substituted Spanglish and she nodded, offering the Spanish back. With my Spanglish and her supplying a key word or two, we laughed and she excitedly said how wonderful it would be to have an LAUSD mother on the board. I added how “Dra. Rivas tiene la experiencia como padre y también como profesional,” (Dr. Rivas’ experience is not only as a mom, but also as a policy aide working with the School Board.) I mentioned Dr. Rivas’ degrees from UC, Berkeley and Columbia University and her three years of service in the office of School Board Member Jackie Goldberg. As I parted ways with the voter, she thanked me for introducing her to Dr. Rivas, expressed support, and promised she would fill out her ballot.  

Canvassing at its heart is about making friendly, face-to-face connections. The hope and excitement that is generated in these moments of resonance is the lasting impression people take with them when considering a candidate. District 2 voters have been deluged with huge spending in digital and mailer communication — $5 million to date in support of Dr. Rivas’ opponent, as the L.A. Times documented this week. Still, there is no guarantee that the message will reach voters or resonate — in the language meaningful for the voter — the same way a neighborhood conversation will. 

Canvassing has made me want to become politically proficient in more languages to achieve more moments where a smile or nod of understanding signify a connection successfully made. Linguistic diversity defines the Los Angeles electorate. To bridge barriers and to experience linkage on behalf of a well-educated Latina leader like Dr. Rivas was particularly gratifying. The potential to build a bond with a candidate or cause and to instill trust in the value of voting is the cleanest, renewable form of energy that fuels our democracy. And I look forward to doing more of it.  


(Ariana Cervantes is a native Californian who earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Global Health at Queen Mary University in London in 2020 and her Master’s Degree in Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2021. She now lives in the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood of L.A. and is a Coro Fellow gaining practical knowledge of political campaigns as a team member with Dr. Rocío Rivas for School Board.)