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Stealing Spanish

Creative Nonfiction by Samantha Chagollan

For a stretch of a few years, we promised we would only speak Spanish to each other on the phone. It would be good practice for both of us.

You in your office, towards the end of your workday, but before you had to get back on the 405 for the daily commute home.

Me in my dorm room, later in my apartment, sometimes sitting down with a late afternoon cigarette for our chat.

I told you about school, what I was reading. You asked about my friends, the ones you knew, and what movies I’d seen lately.

You told me about Mom, and the shop, and your friends at work. You passed along family gossip, mused about what we would do on our next visit.

When I didn’t know a word for something I wanted to tell you, I would slip back to English for a sentence or two. I was learning a formal Spanish in college, different in many ways than the more colloquial version you learned at home. Usually you knew the word, or a word that would suffice, and we would slip easily back into the rhythm of this romance language.

We got out of the habit, after I moved back home, and our conversations were face-to-face instead. We still spoke Spanish to each other when we traveled to Mexico together twice a year, and sometimes at home in front of Mom when we didn’t want her to know what we were saying.

Then there were years our shared vernacular fell away altogether. My skills as a non-native speaker started to fade, and I began to need your help to translate for me in some transactional conversations, with a contractor or a driver.

Once you moved into the memory care facility, you started speaking Spanish again, not just to the staff but to everyone, including me. As if you forgot that it wasn’t my native tongue.

Now that you’re gone, I don’t use it anymore. Maybe a few words here and there to my gardener. He asked about you a few weeks ago, and I struggled to find the vocabulary in your language to tell him you had died of COVID last July.

I find myself leaning in to eavesdrop whenever I hear someone speaking Spanish now, stealing precious fragments of that melodic language we used to share. On a television in the background of a medical office, in line at the grocery store, between an aide and a woman in the spot next to me at the physical therapist’s office. She is trying to tell him her niece is coming to town, and while his Spanish is good, he doesn’t understand the word she’s using. “Cousin?” he keeps asking. “Granddaughter?”

I want to interrupt and help, but I stay silent in my chair. I close my eyes and just listen to the beautiful words and the way she articulates them, like the haunting melody of a beloved song.


Samantha Chagollan is a writer who centers much of her creative work around her mixed Mexican and American heritage. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where she focused her studies on multicultural literature and the Spanish language. Her microessay “Mother Tongue” is forthcoming in Nonwhite and Woman (Woodhall Press). Other published works include several nonfiction books for children, including Immigrant Innovators from Duopress. She lives in Costa Mesa, California, and when she’s not writing, she enjoys teaching yoga, abstract painting and couch time with her husband and two scruffy pups.

Image by Pavan Trikutam via Unsplash.

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Byron Ellington
Byron Ellington
Aug 04, 2022

Powerful, sad, and relatable.

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