What do you mean you don’t speak Spanish? I’m almost a purebred Puerto Rican (besides being a quarter Irish/Italian). But, the Irish is what you see when you look at me. My pale skin and freckles scream Dublin, not San Juan.
A little backstory: My parents moved to the States a couple of years before I was born. Spanish was all around me as a kid. We went to Puerto Rico almost every summer growing up. When I was six years old, we celebrated New Year’s in Ponce. I remember feeling like a million bucks dancing merengue barefoot with my dad on my grandmother’s back porch when she stopped and said in her thick Spanish accent, “¡Mira Nicole! You are boricua and you always will be, it’s in your blood”. I remember how proud I felt to be from Puerto Rico.
Fast forward to me at fifteen. My grandpa’s symptoms of Alzheimer’s made this the standard greeting every time I went to visit:
Grandpa: “Hola Nicole.” (Insert question in Spanish).
Me: “Hi Grandpa, do you remember? I don’t speak Spanish.”
Grandpa: *bewildered stare* “MIRA Hector! WHAT is this that your daughter doesn’t speak Spanish?!”
Lost in Translation
As far back as I can remember, I felt insecure about my elementary command of my culture’s language. When I was young, my mother would say, “Vamos a hablar en español.” She would speak in Spanish and I would protest. All my friends spoke English. Why did I have to work on my Spanish?
Besides, every time I spoke Spanish with relatives or friends I was met with corrections on my grammar and chuckles at my American accent. It’s not their fault, but I developed a real insecurity about my ability to speak Spanish. As time went on, my conjugations and pronunciation got worse until I no longer identified as a Spanish speaker.
And apparently, I’m not the only one. Spanish speaking Hispanics/Latinos have been on the decline in the United States. As that population grows in America, the number of Spanish speaking Hispanics has been decreasing with each generation.
I had multiple opportunities to learn Spanish, but it didn’t stick. I have fond memories of Spanish songs we sang, the novenas we attended before Christmas, and the taste of plantains served at almost every dinner. One of my favorite stories growing up was of Selena Quintanilla, the famous Mexican-American singer who learned Spanish formally as an adult. I would invite my friends over so I could belt “Como La Flor” (one of Selena’s biggest hits) at the top of my lungs and then cry because I was so inspired by the example of what a Hispanic-American woman could achieve.
I’m proud of my Hispanic roots, but truthfully, I often struggle with my cultural identity because I don’t speak Spanish well. I often felt I didn’t fit in a cultural box. I wasn’t Hispanic enough, and I wasn’t American enough. This was especially difficult with my family.
Bridging the Cultural Gap
During most of my teenage years, it was easy to feel alienated from my family’s culture. I thought that I wasn’t as fully a part of my family as I would’ve been if I had darker skin and spoke better Spanish.
Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons about embracing my heritage that have helped me bridge the gap I felt growing up. Here’s what I wish I knew when I was a teen about my cultural identity:
1. Culture is not all or nothing.
Though language is an important part of one’s culture, it’s not the only thing that’s important. Culture is about your family and their traditions- food, stories, music, and faith. Even if you don’t know the language, you can still participate in the culture and embrace it. You are a part of your family and their history — regardless of how good your Spanish is.
2. It is good to ask questions!
If you’ve grown up in a Hispanic/Latino home, you know there are a lot of areas where Hispanic and American values don’t see eye to eye. Gender roles, family responsibilities, and faith expression are just a few of them. When I look back, I wish I would have taken more time to find out why my parents valued certain things more than others in our community did. Seek to understand your family, not just to be understood. Asking questions helps you find common ground.
3. You should own being both/and.
Puerto Ricans are technically American because it’s a territory of the United States, but the culture is Hispanic/Latino. I’m proud of being both Hispanic/Latina and American. Both of my cultures have traditions to be proud of. Why mourn not being one or the other? I wouldn’t be who I am today without both. People might tell you you’re not really American or not really Hispanic, but don’t let other people put you in a box. More importantly, don’t put yourself in one. Embrace being both/ and.
4. God’s plan is perfect.
Family is an imperfect image of God’s perfect love on earth. It’s more important than anything else in life. The last thing God wants is for us to feel alienated from the greatest gift He has given us. He wants us to enjoy it! Your family probably isn’t perfect, but the good news is that God’s plan for you is. He doesn’t make mistakes. When God created you, He placed you in a particular family, in a particular culture. He did this on purpose. He wants to show you His love and He is using the story of your family to do it. Embracing this reality can help you become more fully the person God created you to be.
While there are challenges to growing up in a home like mine, there are even more blessings. I don’t know what your family story is, but for me, whether or not I look and speak like my ancestors doesn’t matter because being boricua is in my blood. I consider myself pretty lucky that God gave me, not one, but two cultures to love.