I was out shopping one day when a woman walked up to me and started casually speaking to me in Spanish. I stared at her for a moment and then quickly shifted my gaze around her to see if maybe my mom was close enough to hear my call, answer the woman’s question, and spare me the embarrassment of yet another “Lo siento. No hablo Español.” No such luck. I looked back at the woman, who could already tell there was something wrong by the anxious look on my face, and painfully uttered those two short sentences knowing that soon her expression would turn to one of disappointment. It is this look that has become all too familiar. And it has evolved for me to be more than just a situational disappointment of someone not being able to have her question answered without hassle. It is also telling of a generational disappointment, as if my lack of Spanish fluency is representative of the current rearing of Latinos in this country who reject a language that is so integral to their culture that it might as well be a rejection of the entire culture. And even though I have always wanted to learn Spanish and to feel more connected with my culture, at this moment I experience a great shame and insecurity for not having already taken the initiative to correct a mistake I think has haunted me for most of my adolescent life.
With sporadic incidents like this, I began to wonder why my parents never taught me Spanish. And so, I made the decision to confront them about it one day. Coming from a relatively liberal family, I was never too concerned about questioning culture or even certain executive choices they made for my upbringing. But in this instance, I was honestly nervous about how I should frame the conversation without appearing as though I was blaming them for denying me a language that, I already strongly believed, could have made childhood a lot easier. So, I started out with a beautifully simple, “Why did you and mom not teach me Spanish?”
In my mind, I was hoping for a lecture on how they were both working so much that they just didn’t have the time, or maybe they were just self-conscious about their own Spanish, given that they were both raised in New York and only spoke Spanish to their parents. However, much to my surprise, my father said, “Well, we wanted you to grow up American.” Flashes of awkward elementary and middle school moments have since surfaced as proof that there was no way I could have ever ‘grow[n] up American.’ All that was needed to shatter those hopes was the mere presence of my father at school functions, and my own skin color for that matter.
These were targets for my peers when they would rudely ask, in front of entire classes, if I was adopted because my mom looked so ‘fair.’ Or why, in fact, I didn’t speak Spanish when I looked so ‘ethnic.’ That shameless ignorance that comes with sheltered and inexperienced youth facilitated my feelings of being an outsider and never truly American. And although my parents now realize I still have issues with my identity stemming from this initial environment, they maintain that their approach of full assimilation for me and my younger sister allowed us to have a single, stable identity. This belief, rooted in their idea of American opportunity complementing those who accept American culture, ignores the obstacle of American exceptionalism, which is the concept that a community accepts and provides benefits only to Americans, leaving ‘outsiders’ no room to achieve those same privileges. It is this obstacle that prevented me from gaining immediate access to peer acceptance since to them I was seen as ‘Latin,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Spanish,’ or even ‘Mexican.’ Basically, I was anything but American. And because of these labels, I wasn’t treated the same. I would get teased for my darker features, avoided during recess, and questioned for my American name and “surprisingly articulate” voice. So whatever my parents’ motivations were for denying me Spanish, they certainly didn’t come to fruition in the way that they’d hoped.
I proudly identify with my Peruvian and Puerto Rican roots through other cultural essentials like food and household mannerisms. However, that disconnect I have with not speaking Spanish has resulted in me never being fully accepted even in my own family with relatives who were raised in bilingual homes. And so, my experience speaks to the unifying and powerful properties a common language like Spanish possesses. I’ve seen how it can distinguish trusted members of a community and provide not only a means of communication, but also an access to a welcoming and united home. Similarly though, I identify my motivation in school and belief in a better life for my family as being typical of an “American” mentality — a mentality I define as inclusive of the idea that working hard will allow me to achieve success though the presented opportunity.
Though I have learned to be proud of all the facets of my Peruvian, Puerto Rican, and American identity, pride just isn’t enough, especially when Spanish plays a significant role in forming the Latino identity in America. And so, I now see Spanish as more than a language; it is a foundational opportunity to obtain cultural understanding and acceptance. It is something that can create a sense of trust and belonging, and it is something that can maintain a strong, cohesive community. Because of this, I will personally take up the responsibility to learn it in the hopes that I will grow to further appreciate and even uncover hidden aspects of my identity. But for now, I am content with the fact that I have supportive friends and family that can sympathize with me as I take on this journey of self-discovery.