“Perdón, que no hablo español.”
The amount of shame I have felt when uttering this over the course of my life is truly immeasurable.
Speaking in Spanish, my great-grandmother would often ask me to go buy her groceries, which usually forced me to sit down and stare intensely at the computer, looking up every word before embarking on the painful journey. It was the same procedure every time; I rarely asked the employees where an item was, because I didn’t know how to pronounce it nor had the courage to try. Instead, I would simply show them the list and allow them to assist me, navigating through the entire store.
“¿A qué te refieres no sabes español? ¿Eres puertorriqueño, no? Why wouldn’t you know? You’re Puerto Rican after all.”
What it means to be Latino is more than just speaking Spanish, but I just couldn’t comprehend it then. Being surrounded by multilingual Latinos often made me insecure about my identity. I felt as though whenever I was asked a question or told something, and didn’t have the correct response, that I was less of a Latino than they were. The worst part? I believed it.
I was constantly put down for not being capable enough to call myself a Puerto Rican. Within our culture, being able to connect with people through the Spanish language is imperative. Although Spanish shouldn’t be considered a necessary component in identifying as a Latino, to speak the language with other Hispanics is expected.
Contrary to these expectations, data demonstrates that many perceive the identity of “Latino” as independent from the ability to speak Spanish. Within the U.S., 26 percent of young Latinos inhabit a living space where English is the sole language spoken. To what extent do Latinos living in America deem oral Spanish communication an exigency? Eighty-seven percent don’t believe it’s significant, and those of that are registered voters, 81 percent.
Yes, Spanish will become a language utilized by more and more in the future, but the fact that more Spanish speakers will be of non-Hispanic descent completely debunks the general conception. Many have taken the language since pre-K, others have ventured and independently taught themselves, but how does one assume the title of “Latino?” Is it truly seven hours of Duolingo a day, or is it something greater?
Traveling to Spain for a year and becoming “fluent” in Spanish has taught me one thing: I am not more Puerto Rican than I was a year ago. Over this time, I focused on developing culturally and mastering a new language. I lived with three host families, but the most memorable was my last. It was apparent that I was struggling with the language, and I always felt like a burden when I couldn’t communicate properly. One day, my host mom sat me down and asked smiling, “Why are you so hard on yourself? Your Spanish is superb, and you’re always trying. What more can you want?” From that moment, I never questioned my capabilities to learn, and as a result, I came out victorious, but I didn’t believe anything had truly changed.
I have been speaking English for 19 years, and I still don’t consider myself fluent in the language. If someone has a stronger vocabulary than I do, does that mean they’re more American than me? Absolutely not. So, what was I in the eyes of others?
I may have different skin color, speak a different language and have certain capacities for learning others, but why label? Within a melting pot, labels are fruitless, as there are a plethora of differentiable flavors of culture that contribute their own taste.
We all need to begin to love each other, and ourselves, for who we are. Appreciation of another’s flaws, differences and abnormalities is the ultimate kindness. We must look past the general and insignificant details that claim to define our being, and instead look at what does matter. Wanting to become more of your ethnicity is impossible. An open mind will allow for the facilitation of more positive thoughts, more comprehension of one’s potential story.
What does this mean for me? Who constitutes my family and friends, how I contribute to my community around me, my habit to work hard and give back. Those are the qualities that define my heritage, not me speaking Spanish, and that goes for all individuals with Spanish roots. For anyone out there that continues to struggle with the quagmire of cultural acceptance, I have one piece of advice: just keep on shaking your hips and dance your way through the rest of your canción, at your own rhythm.
Canaan Delgado is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester.