Editor’s note: This essay was written just days before San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who delivered the keynote at the Democratic convention, got blasted in the media, by Latinos and non-Latinos alike, for not being bilingual and maybe not “Latino enough.” You can read more about it here, and over on Spanglish Baby.
Meanwhile, here is the first-hand experience of someone who often deals with the “Why don’t you speak Spanish?”
Men and women, on the street, in stores, in the subway asking always the same question, approach me often: Habla español? And when I shake my head no, they frown with disappointment and disbelief. They see me, my dark curly hair, my olive skin, my brown eyes.
In high school I worked at a rectory with another girl named Lisa. We were good girls but trouble together. And we liked to answer the door on certain nights. Both dressed in white, our hair – mine brown, hers blonde – pulled back in ponytails. We’d wait, as the parishioner would immediately start speaking to me in Spanish. And then the other Lisa, the blond Lisa would answer in Spanish. And we’d try not to laugh at the parishioner’s confusion.
Looking back, it was my first experience with being judged. Because I looked Latina, I therefore must speak Spanish. And if I don’t speak Spanish – well, there must be something wrong with me.
I was not Latina enough.
I have struggled with cultural identity for years and I’ve always felt like I’ve never had a place. Dancing between two worlds in cultural limbo. Growing up in a diverse Latino neighborhood and not speaking Spanish, I’ve been called every name in the book: valley girl, gringa, estúpida and most recently, an embarrassment to my culture.
But, here are some common misconceptions.
We are not proud. There is this assumption that if we do not speak Spanish, that we are not proud of our culture. I may not speak Spanish but I’ve watched documentaries and own dozens of books about Puerto Rico. I’ve studied its history and read its literature. I (I have many Spanish-speaking friends who do not know the island history, the way I do.)
I am proud of being Latina. I am proud of my color, my hair and my hips. I am proud of my name with its Qs and Zs. 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.
We cannot cook like our mothers. One Christmas, I was talking to my coworker about making Christmas dinner. I told her I was making pernil and arroz con gandules. “You know how to make that?” she asked. I know why she asked. But people seem always surprised that I make a pretty impressive pot of arroz con gandules simply because I do not speak Spanish. Not really sure why, recipes are written in English.
Our mothers have failed us. When I tell people I don’t speak Spanish, they usually ask, “Why didn’t your mother teach you?” It is accusatory, judgmental. It puts me on the defense immediately. Because my mom is a great mother and she raised me to have respect for others, to be honest and hardworking. To have her questioned is hurtful.
We don’t want to learn to speak Spanish. I have yet to meet a non-Spanish speaking Latina 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 is difficult. It takes time and practice – a lot of practice. And whom will we practice with?
We cannot understand. Yeah, we may not Spanish but that doesn’t mean we don’t understand, especially if you start talking about us. Trash talk is universal.
Lisa Quinones-Fontanez is a secretary by day, MFA Creative Writing CCNY student/blogger by night and Mommy round the clock. Lisa also is the author of AutismWonderland. Her writing has been featured in Pot Luck Magazine, Being Latino and BronxMama.