My life as a non-Spanish-speaking Latina isn’t abnormal. I’ll start there. Many of us are in this together, whether it be that we are second or third (or fourth…) generation, mixed race and multicultural or even adopted. Regardless, there are plenty of reasons why one might walk in this world day in and day out as Latina, while not speaking the ancestral language that unites our far-ranging identity.
My story starts with my dad, who is Mexican-American and the oldest of 11 children. His first language was Spanish and he still speaks it fluently. I heard it every day in my home—its rhythmic cadence a soothing element of my childhood—when he spoke to his familia on the phone or when he spoke to our neighbors. But it never was something that was mandated for me to speak. Being that he grew up in the civil rights era—AKA during the 50s and 60s—when being “white” and Americanized was beat into Mexican-Americans (sometimes literally) and where you were shamed at school for speaking anything other than English, my father’s experience with his native tongue has always been complicated.
I didn’t grow up around my Spanish-speaking family, as my dad moved to find a job in the Midwest and met my mom. And even growing up in a minority-majority neighborhood, with many of my friends being Latino (there were three boys named Jose alone in my Kindergarten class), Spanish was just an extra component of your upbringing, like being blonde or having two dads. You weren’t any more for speaking it or any less for not—many of my friends only kept their fluency because their abuelitas would speak to them in Spanish, the only language they knew. I would sing Selena and watch telenovelas at my friends’ houses and hear angry tias yell at my friends, and I would understand what was being sung or acted or yelled. But I was English dominant, and that was only solidified in my world of English-native speakers.
There was a shift around my time, where being fluent in another language—particularly Spanish—was seen as something to be proud of. It meant more job opportunities, a connectedness to the world at large. But for many of us born to parents who were told that being “American” was the gold standard, we looked back with a sort of slow-burning regret. We may have been angry at our parents for not instilling in us a language we felt we should know. We may have taken Spanish classes in high school or college, trying hard to grasp at a component of an identity we related most to, but it didn’t always work. The outcome was what it was. We were Latino and we weren’t Spanish-speaking.
My experience with this was compounded by my appearance. Non-Latinos think I look white, which is fair considering I am an olive-skinned, “white passing” Latina. Many Latinos, in general though, think I look Latina. You could see how this has confounded me throughout my life. It was normal for non-Latinos to ask what my background was, then look shocked when I told them I had Mexican heritage. “Really?” They’d often say. “You look Egyptian.” But a fellow Latino approaching me was always a toss-up. Would they speak to me in Spanish? More often than not, they did. For some reason, this seemed to happen a lot with someone asking for directions. And cue me—blubbering and thinking to myself that of all the people on the subway platform or the street they could have chosen, they chose me, the one with the olive-complexion that spoke to a certain background, but who couldn’t help them.
In my twenties, as I made my way from country to country, exploring cities I had never dreamed I’d be able to visit, I looked at a map of my travels and realized I had avoided much of Central America and South America. And deep down, I knew why. I didn’t want to confront the same questioning and statements that, while not malicious, plagued and exhausted me in the U.S. like ,“Why don’t you speak Spanish?” “Didn’t you want to learn?” “Are you really Mexican?” “Does your family speak it?” “It’s not too late to learn!” “It’s a part of your identity, you should learn it.” “Can you really call yourself Latina if you don’t speak Spanish?” As if my experience and choices and identity was something that could be summed up in one sentence; as if I had an obligation to share my personal story with someone I barely knew. But as soon as I started exploring the places and cities where speaking Spanish is the norm, it became clear—what we look like and what we speak is so vastly different; my U.S.-centric experiences were standalone. Sure, I was talked to in Spanish at the airports, and sure people asked me why I didn’t speak Spanish, but it seemed that my small, short explanations were enough. We’re a world of mixed cultures and races and languages. And of course, like a good traveler, I try to know key phrases and greetings in the language of the country I’m visiting. But my lack of Spanish didn’t have to mean that I lacked Latinidad—that I wasn’t Latina enough. It took me traveling outside of my comfort zone to realize that.
In the U.S., there seems to be a fundamental disconnect of our history and heritage and where that leaves us when it comes to language and identity. For those who are first generation, Spanish is an inherent part of the Latino identity. As it should be. But as many American-born Latinos know, especially Mexican-Americans, we’re often brought up in the middle of—or rather, jumping between—two cultures. And as I’ve learned, that’s okay. You can identify with your ancestors and your family, you can eat your tia’s tamales, and dance and sing to the song that reminds you of home even if you know what two-thirds of the words mean. You can be proud of your cultura and what that means to you. It doesn’t make you any less than. You are Latina enough.