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Speaking Spanish in California

Nowadays, when I mention that I lived in parts of California where I spoke some Spanish, I usually see a typical reaction. People who know me as the corporate guy, living in suburbia, are sometimes shocked when they hear that I lived in some pretty rough neighborhoods in my youth, like Canoga Park, California. I wasn't there long, but it was long enough for me to get a taste of what the world looks like to people who speak a foreign language in America.

My apartment in Canoga Park, which was close to where I worked in a fashionable and expensive part of the San Fernando Valley called Woodland Hills, was relatively affordable. I was getting a decent salary from the place I worked, and my future looked bright for promotion. In the meantime, I lived in Canoga Park. And mostly it was just a place to hang my hat. I can't say that I spent all that much time there. I was either at work, at the gym, or at my girlfriend's. But sometimes I just had to be there, and boredom would overtake me.

The apartment complex in Canoga Park had no outside spaces - at all. No pool, nothing but the building and a parking lot. So people who actually wanted to be outside just stood around in the parking lot. Mostly they were tough-looking young men, mostly Chollos, and a real oddball, my next door neighbor, a big red-headed guy, who was usually pretty drunk. He would hang out with the Chollos, drinking beer, and shouting at people, mostly trying to get them from driving too fast through the parking lot, where there were a lot of people, including children.

When my big red-headed drunken friend introduced me to his Chollo friends, they were absolutely amazed that I could speak a little Spanish. My Spanish was pretty terrible, I know, but the guys didn't mind. And it was the first time I'd seen people who had been very uncomfortable speaking English, just relax and drop back into the language that they knew. And it felt good to me, too. I call this "Budweiser Spanish" - when you're with people who aren't being judgmental, probably because they're already have had a few!

Recently I decided to get back to practicing my Spanish, and a few days ago I started "Duolingo" on my iPhone. And of course, I want to practice. I have a good friend who sometimes takes me along when he goes to Dennys who speaks some Spanish, and he understands that I want to practice. He has also encouraged me, when appropriate, to say "quiero practicar mi EspaƱol" (I want to practice my Spanish) when we are out and about and hear someone speaking Spanish, like at a Mexican Food restaurant. By the way, you never, ever, just start talking a foreign language to someone based on their appearance, that is very rude! I've seen people do this, and it just about makes me ill.

I sometimes think about the Chollos of Canoga Park, and my big red-headed friend, and wonder how they're doing, or if the angels have taken them. I was glad to get out of Canoga Park, but I'm glad that I got to experience it.

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