Misconceptions of a Non-Spanish Speaking Latina

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?”

Lisa Quinones-FontanezBy Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

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.

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By Contributor on September 8, 2012 · Posted in the habla habla

14 Comments | Post Comment

Bohemian Babushka says:

Learning self taught Spanish was challenging at 12, I can imagine trying to learn it as an adult! Thankfully La Tata was a major presence in my trios life and though English is their native tongue, they do speak it enough to get by.

Now a question to you- which is worse? Being Latino and speaking Spanish veeerrrryyyy badly and w/an American accent or not speaking it at all? Either way the laughs hurt and non compassion will abound.

BB2U
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Posted on September 8th, 2012

Alexandra says:

I love what Bohemian said.

There are no pleasing some people: if you do try to speak Spanish, but have no “true” accent you get slammed.

If you don’t speak at all, you get slammed.

So, you get trashed for even trying?

It’s difficult to understand where these people come from, that judge their own raza like that.

We need to stick together, not pull anyone down.

Lovely post, you make points that I hope someone who may judge/did judge/has been judged, can relate to.

Posted on September 8th, 2012

KaliAmanda says:

Culture is deeply embedded in language, and many define their cultural identity down to it. Some people feel that the moment we start to assimilate and leave behind the ancestral language, other aspects of our cultural identity will die as well. This is not necessarily true, but it is what I have encountered more often. There is a certain level of arrogance and assumptions of superiority, but you’ll always be faced with this because being “Latina” encompasses so darn much, there is no “normal”. Someone is going to consider themselves a bigger, better, more sabrosa Latina.

Posted on September 9th, 2012

Sandra Foyt says:

Growing up as the blonde who could speak Spanish, well, I’m not crazy about the judging myself. As an adult, my hair is a lot darker, but still no one believes I’m a Latina unless I start talking in Spanish. I won’t go into a spiel about how painful that can be. Just wanted to say that I hear you, and second what you’re saying. There’s no such thing as “Latina enough,” we’re all unique, and that’s a good thing, no?
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Tia Mirtha says:

That you don’t speak Spanish is your own fault. You probably did not want to learn it, because it made you different that your “anglo” friends. In my house, my father made the rule. In here, you speak Spanish, outside you speak English. My daughter, if she wants to, can communicate in Spanish, she understand it and read it.
I don’t blame anyone but you.. It was your choice.
I don’t diss someone that does not speak Spanish. Pero que error tan grande no aprenderlo.

Posted on September 9th, 2012

Lisa ~ AutismWonderland says:

Thank you BB!!!

As an adult I’ve tried and it’s difficult. In college, a professor told me it needed to practiced at least 2 hours a day. I don’t have that time to practice. And those few times I try, I get laughed at for my accent (or lack there of). Being laughed at does hurt and it makes me extremely self conscious to the point, where I don’t even want to try.

Posted on September 9th, 2012

Melanie Edwards - Ella Media & ModernMami.com says:

I think that’s very presumptuous to assume she chose not to learn Spanish. What if she didn’t have enough resources made available to her? I think it’s fair to say that a lot of different things went into the fact that she never learned Spanish and it was probably a complicated situation – as most things in life are. Nothing is just black and white.

And to say that you don’t diss anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish, but then reprimand her that it was her choice and you blame no one but her…plus then write in Spanish that it was a huge mistake – well, that was a bit of a back-handed way of “dissing” her.
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Lisa ~ AutismWonderland says:

Exactly Alexandra! It’s a lose lose situation.

Thank you…I hope so too.
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Lisa ~ AutismWonderland says:

I believe culture is a combination of things – yes, language is a factor but there other things to consider. You are absolutely right…there will always be someone who will think they are more Latina than me because I do not speak Spanish. But I think it’s important to remember it’s not a competition.

A Caucasian person will look at me and see a Latina and it will not matter whether or not I speak Spanish – I will be looked upon as an outsider. To be considered as an outsider by two cultures is not only confusing but hurtful.
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Lisa ~ AutismWonderland says:

I think this is a little unfair…

It’s not that I did not want to learn. Growing up, it was not spoken because my mother had to make a choice on how to raise us. You see my mother tried raising my brother and me bilingual. But my brother was three years old and still not speaking, so my mother decided to speak only in English. And once she started speaking only English to us – my brother began learning how to speak. I am certain as a mother, you can understand that reasoning – it’s better to have a child learning how to speak at least one language rather not speaking at all.

Also it’s unfair to assume that I had anglo friends growing up. Because all my friends were Latino and bilingual. I was the only one of my friends growing up who did not speak Spanish. I was the butt of a lot of jokes because it was the one thing that made me different and at one point they all tried to teach me. And when I tried to speak back, they laughed because of my accent and because I stumbled over my words. It made me not want to speak Spanish.

In college I took 2 semesters of Spanish – (I attended college as an adult, holding down a full time job), even the professor made fun of me. At first she insisted I was lying being in her class, wanting to get an easy A. When she saw how much I struggled with the language, she shouted me out at the end of the semester saying, “Only one Latino in this course really needed to be here, and that person failed miserably.” Everyone knew she was talking about me and it was humiliating. I hated speaking in class, I hated being called on. I had no one to practice with that wouldn’t laugh at me. While I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t do well. The professor made me feel so insecure, that I didn’t want to be there and as a result, I didn’t do as well a I could have.

But even with all of that, I can still understand a significant amount of Spanish – so much so that I was able to translate into English one whole page in Spanish as part of my grad school requirement. I will turn 37 in a few days, learning Spanish is on my bucket list.
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Lisa ~ AutismWonderland says:

Thank you Melanie!! It is definitely not black and white. There were so many things that came into play…none of them being laziness.
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Ruby says:

What saddens me most is that OUR own people are the ones JUDGING!

I’ve learned as an adult that there are so many reasons why my non Spanish speaking LATINA friends never learned the language. I’m amazed at the things I’ve heard
“I was told never to speak the language in fear of deportation.”
“I was told i’d be looked down on if I ever spoke Spanish”
“I was never taught because my parents only spoke English”
“I’m 3rd generation Spanish is hardly ever spoken”
the list goes on!

I was fortunate to hear it all my childhood. I never even knew i was ever learning a second language(o should i say my first) I couldn’t rebel or even accept IT JUST HAPPENED.

As a mother now, teaching my kids Spanish has been a struggle and a constant one.Who is to know if they every will be fluent in Spanish. I know they will be labeled as many things but “Embarrassment to their culture” for not learning a language that is part of their culture should NOT be one!

I’m sorry this happened to you!
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Posted on September 9th, 2012

Jen Greyson says:

Such an awesome perspective–thanks for sharing.

I’ve tried a number of times to learn Spanish as an adult, and as badly as I want to learn, with two young boys, a full-time job (plus writing and blogging) there’s just no time to fit it in….sadly, it’s just not enough of a priority for me to put my other things aside.

I wish someone would come out with a solution that would teach me in my sleep :)

I have thought about it a lot as a mom though — to Ruby’s point — if they can learn now at their young age, they’ll have such an easier time! We have some great immersion schools here in Utah, and they had a weekly Spanish class at their Montessori school last year, but the teacher had a baby this year…so it’s back on me, and that’s probably not going to happen unless I force myself to learn it so I can teach them.

We really are wonder women for trying to fit all this in :/

Good luck!
Jen
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Posted on October 7th, 2012

Bohemian Babushka (@BBabushka) says:

http://bohemianbabushka.blogspot.com/p/we-are.html
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