I am a Latina who does not speak Spanish fluently.
For the past 18 years, I have seen myself as an embarrassment to my Mexican family and as invalid in my Latina identity because of my broken Spanish. I grew up with two bilingual Chicano parents in a predominantly white, middle class suburb of Los Angeles, where — unlike other cities of Los Angeles with vibrant Latino communities where bachata dances, taquerias, and a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish are essential parts of day-to-day existence — my hometown of Burbank was devoid of Spanish-speaking customs and traditions.
As a result, I did not recognize how much it meant to my mother (and would eventually mean to me) that I preserve the language she had fought so hard to preserve when she first immigrated to America in the 1970s. She moved here long before being a Spanish-speaking Latino was considered “cool” in the media — before Camilla Cabello sang about being called a “senorita” and before politicians spoke Spanish to appeal to Latino voters in presidential debates. I never made a conscious choice to not speak Spanish, but still, when my mother would speak to me in her native tongue, I would mostly respond in English because it was easier — ignorant of the broader implications that not speaking Spanish would have on my view of myself later on in life.
I distinctly remember the first time that I realized that my Spanish was “unacceptable.” I was 10 years old and a Spanish-speaking friend of my mother’s was visiting with her four-year-old son. My mother’s friend sat next to me at our kitchen table as my mom served us fresh tamales. My mother’s friend began to ask me a series of questions about my age, school and favorite things. I opened my mouth to speak but only pathetic fragments of a sentence and “umms” worked their way out. I watched her face turn from kindness to disappointment. Thinking that I fully could not comprehend Spanish, she told my mother that she should be ashamed of herself because her four-year-old son could communicate more properly in their native tongue than I could. From that point onwards, instead of taking this criticism as motivational, constructive feedback, my 10-year-old self subconsciously decided that I would prefer to be seen as shy and quiet than to make a fool of myself again attempting to speak broken Spanish in front of other Latinos.
At Spanish-only speaking family functions, like quinceaneras or baptisms, I often sat alone with a book, trying not to be noticed. Whenever I did have to speak Spanish to my relatives and family friends, seeing the look of dismay in their eyes upon them realizing that I could not speak Spanish made me less eager to practice. I began ditching family events and isolated myself from important cultural experiences, all because I prioritized avoiding discomfort over the valuable communal experiences that speaking Spanish would have offered.
Oftentimes, my reticence tied to insecurity was falsely, but understandably perceived by fellow Latinos as cultural detachment, or worse, superiority to other Latinos because I came from a relatively socioeconomically privileged, white suburb. Their assumption was that I did not value our language when in fact, I wished I could speak it with the ease that they did. I began to be jokingly, but sometimes critically, called a “coconut” (white on the inside, brown on the outside) by other Latino family members and friends. Consequently, I started to view myself as a stranger in both the Latino and white communities I was exposed to.
Aside from causing me to harbor feelings of otherness in spaces that are meant to feel the most welcoming, my embarrassment about my broken Spanish kept me in a cycle of stagnation with learning Spanish until I formally took high school Spanish language courses. Learning Spanish in an academic setting was a breath of fresh air and improved my Spanish. Still, around the time that I became fluent enough in Spanish to hold a very basic conversation, my grandfather’s Alzheimers progressed rapidly. For years, my grandfather had very warmly encouraged me to speak full sentences in Spanish, but by the time I was capable of doing so, his language skills had declined and he could no longer form sentences which devastated me. After he passed, I lost my motivation for speaking Spanish because I still felt intellectually inferior and less Latino than those whose “rrs” rolled off their tongue with ease. I only spoke in Spanish when I knew precisely what I was going to say and there was minimal risk of embarrassment.
This all changed shortly after moving to Yale. Last week, as I walked through New Haven, I passed by a taco stand on my way to class and it reminded me of my uncle, who used to help run a taco stand in downtown Los Angeles. The man at the stand shouted, “Hola,” I responded with, “Hello,” and walked away, nervous that the man would try to engage in further conversation. Then, I realized how utterly nonsensical my logic was for not wanting to speak to someone who reminded me of home. I thought back to all the times that I had tried to run away from speaking Spanish and missed out on so many wonderful moments out of fear of being socially stigmatized. I decided to strike up a conversation with this man. Although I stumbled to come up with the correct syntax and made errors multiple times throughout the conversation, I was proud of myself for facing my fears and glad that I spoke to him. I learned that he was from the same state in Mexico that my mother was born in and felt a sense of commonality and kinship with this man that I had never experienced before.
Over the past few days, challenging myself to risk embarrassment and speak to other Spanish-only speaking Latinos has afforded me a new kind of belonging and helped me realize that Latinidad is not tied to one particular way of speaking, background or behavior. Community is more about connection than it is about objectifiable characteristics. I may not be a perfect Spanish speaker yet, but I am, without a doubt, Latina.
Vivian Vasquez | email@example.com .