Coming from two cultures, one of my biggest anxieties has always been being seen as “not enough.” I was teased by the black kids in high school for being so light-skinned and talking like a white girl and teased by my Latino friends in college for not speaking Spanish and talking like a white girl. For a long time, my “otherness” left me in a permanent middle ground of uncertainty — of feeling like I didn’t belong because my hair, my looks, and my language skills weren’t “enough” for either of my backgrounds.
But then, I grew up. And now I’ve realized that speaking Spanish does not have to define my Latino heritage and pride. Maybe I fumble over my r’s and mix up tenses, but I can still fly my Puerto Rican flag high.
The wall between my culture and me, I discovered, was largely of my own design. I felt like I wasn’t Latino enough. I was insecure, and I allowed that insecurity to color my experience and define me.
To be sure, there are a lot of benefits to be gleaned from speaking another language.
In corporate America, for example, knowing Spanish is pretty much an expected draw to hiring Latinos, something that supposedly gives us worth in an environment that is less likely to hire us. On a cultural level, we should all be learning more languages, and for Latinos, knowing Spanish does make it easier to connect with Latino media and certain elements of the community.But as for being Latino, as for Spanish being a prerequisite to Latino identity, I say:mierda.
I have yet to meet a non-Spanish speaking Latino who says, “I’m so glad I don’t speak Spanish.” In fact, not speaking Spanish is a significant regret. Learning a language at 3, 4 or 5 is a whole lot different from learning as an adult. As an adult who has tried to learn, it’s difficult. It takes time and practice – a lot of practice. And whom will we practice with?
And then there’s the flip side – when non-Spanish speaking Latinos try to speak Spanish, they’re ridiculed for their pronunciation and accent. And or laughed at. Case in point, kinda funny story actually. I had walked up to a police officer in Old San Juan last mont while on vacay and was trying to ask him where a certain restaurant was at in town. Unfortunately, my Spanish is pretty crappy and so I pronounced it wrong. I then just told him in english that i was american and my Spanish sucked. The officer laughed, and told me in english it was ok, and asked where I was from. I told him I was a Puerto Rican too and from Texas but that I didn’t speak. If ya’ll would of seen the look on his face….it made me laugh, feel silly and a lil embarrassed. But, he was very kind and understanding though and gave me directions.
There’s a difference between being corrected and being made fun of. When someone is laughed at for attempting to speak Spanish, it can be discouraging and make the person feel self-conscious.
I am pretty good at following a conversation even if I can’t be part of it. I pick up on words, phrases and body language. My parents in law always switched to Spanish when they wanted talk about something they didn’t want me to know about, so I’ve had years of practice of decoding conversation. And I’m usually aware if you start talking about me. Because trash talk is universal.
The way I experience the world is what makes me Latino. My values – an emphasis on family, a commitment to social justice for my community – are what make me Latino. But because I do feel like speaking better Spanish is a missing puzzle piece of my identity, I’m working on it. It is inherent in me. It is effortless. It is not earned or awarded, given or taken. It just is.
I am proud of being Latina. I am proud of my color, my hair and whatever lil hips I’ve got. I am proud of the place my parents were born. And I am proud of the language I long to speak but have never been taught.
So to the Latinos who don’t speak Spanish, to the Latinos who can’t roll their r’s or have to smile and nod when their tía starts rattling off words they don’t understand: Don’t worry.