Connecting with his Roots with Joe Morales

We recently spoke with Joe Morales about learning the language of his cultural heritage. Joe is half Mexican and he tells us about his story connecting with his roots by learning the Spanish language, which wasn’t taught during his youth. Let’s see what he has to share with us.

Thank you so much, Joe, for joining us today! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in learning languages?

My name is Joe Morales, I am half Mexican and while growing up, my family spoke a lot of Spanish. They didn’t teach us because they didn’t want us to be discriminated against as children. My father and my other aunts and uncles have regretted not teaching us our culture’s language out of fear. I have full-blooded Mexican relatives that don’t speak a single word of Spanish. To us, we have lost a connection to our family, our heritage, and who we are.

“I am a trained chef and food writer. I want to explore the different culinary cultures starting with Mexico, Spain, France, and Italy. My goal is to stay extended periods of time in those countries and I’m hoping to learn Spanish, French, and Italian.

So this was something very personal to you, to learn the language, to learn your roots. What challenges are involved in advancing a language that you’ve been exposed to all your life, but have now tried to work toward fluency?

Speaking Spanish is the connection I am missing with my heritage and I feel it will complete that connection. It’s difficult to find the time for learning every day. You have to be disciplined and focused. The other difficulty is learning the language but not having someone around to practice speaking to.”

A photo of Guadalajara town square by Joe Morales on one of his travels to Mexico.

How far along are you in your language progress?

It depends on my location. Is that weird? When I am in Mexico, I can speak it better, but with some difficulty, because everyone speaks the language. When I am home in the United States, I find it more difficult. I would say I am somewhere between beginner and intermediate.

Can you break down how you learn the language? What methods do you use?

“I currently use Duolingo. I practice in the mornings or afternoons. I find the Duolingo app to be useful, effective, and I treat it like a video game. I have tried cassette tapes (dating myself), CDs, and some books. It just isn’t the same.

I know a lot of the words, but I try to not skip ahead because it feels like cheating to me. I just go through everything in case I miss something I didn’t know. I know that you are supposed to practice a minimum of 15 minutes with Duolingo. Honestly, it’s like weightlifting. I keep going until I lose form. When I realize I am getting tired or making unnecessary mistakes, I stop.

What lessons have you learned through your experience?

I think learning another language expands your way of thinking. You are learning the foundation of a culture. To me, it all starts with communication. It’s an understanding. You are making a connection to people, a way of life.” 

I know that for me when I visit Mexico, I feel an emotional connection. I see the people living their life. I see them singing, laughing, and dancing. I see what they celebrate and what they mourn.

“I remember one specific time I was at an event with a Mariachi group playing. While I recorded the performance, I felt myself get choked up and I felt my eyes welling with tears. I couldn’t explain it but the music and the words (that I couldn’t understand) moved me tremendously. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, and I hope it won’t be the last.

Joe Morales with his parents. Joe is half-Mexican from his father's side
Joe Morales with his parents. (Joe is half-Mexican on his father’s side.)

Could you share some of your personal stories from communicating in Spanish?

Once, I was in a hurry, and instead of speaking English, I forced myself to speak Spanish to a young man who was one of the valet attendants. I was explaining that I ordered an Uber but it was saying it was arriving in a different location and needed to know how to get the driver to go to the correct location. The young man motioned to see my phone, typed in the correct location in Spanish to the driver. Then handed me back my phone and spoke the clearest English back to me.

When I saw him for the rest of my stay, he called me Uber. He wasn’t making fun, but while I spoke Spanish to him, he spoke English to me. I saw it as a sign of respect.

What advice would you give to other language learners?

Be patient. Try to understand more than the language. Learn about the people, the region, the food, their history. There is more to it than just learning how to speak with them.

For a bit of extra fun could you tell us a fun saying or two in Spanish and explain what it means to you?

There are a few that I like, the first is ‘buen provecho’. They say this when you are about to eat. It means ‘enjoy your meal’ or ‘bon appetite’. I know it could be about manners simply saying they hope you enjoy your food, but to me, it seems so much more genuine.

Another is ‘camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la correinte’. Which translates to, ‘the shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current’. Meaning: ‘You snooze, you lose’. It makes me laugh, because, do shrimp really sleep?” 

Thanks so much, Joe Morales. It was a pleasure getting to know you better.

About Joe Morales:

Joe Morales at a cooking demo.
Joe Morales at a cooking demo.

Joe Morales is a trained chef and food writer. He teaches cooking classes, develops recipes, and writes about test kitchen successes and fails on his website, Joe Eats World. He learns Spanish as he feels it connects him to his culture and heritage. He enjoys traveling and learning about different culture’s cuisines, so he wants to learn French and Italian, in addition to Spanish. He hopes to spend extensive time in those countries in the future.

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