An open letter to Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish: I’m learning to accept you

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s celebrate those who are Latinx, even when they don’t speak Spanish

I didn’t always accept them, and by “them” I mean Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish. In fact, I’ve almost always rejected “them” as one of “us”. But as of recently, I’ve flip-flopped, for the better, in terms of the way I think.

I specifically say flip-flopped, because I’m not at the point where I can fully accept them as one of us. But I’m also no longer at the point where I’m ignorant of the struggle they go through with wanting to feel accepted or feeling a sense of identity with our culture.

Initially, my reason behind giving the cold shoulder was simple: If you can’t communicate with the group of people that you’re identifying with, how can you possibly understand who they are, their culture and their struggles.

I’ve seen the level of disconnect when that one Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish is an outsider to a conversation held by two Spanish-speaking individuals. The cultural gap is palpable. They almost always just stand there awkwardly, unsure of how to engage in a conversation that seems foreign to them.

I’ve met several people who have last names that are of Latino descent like Garcia, Ramirez, Mireles, etc. Some of them agree and say that it’s simply a last name that gives them that Latin sense of being, even though they say they’re not. Others embrace the identity because doing otherwise might be considered a shame.

The way I see it, it’s just society’s way of rejecting a person from being “American” and forcing a different label on them, simply because of the way they look or based on how ethnic their name sounds.

In the U.S., being American seems exclusive to those who look or sound white, and everyone else has to fit into a subcategory of it. A black person has to call themselves by the color of their skin or being called African American. A person with a Latino last name has to be Latinx, even when their parents, their grandparents and their great grandparents were born here. It seems as though they can’t just be American, because apparently having a Latino last name or having the physical traits of a Latinx doesn’t qualify them to be Americans.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that these labels are beneficial when collecting data about people of certain backgrounds and provide insight as to who they are. Also, I don’t want to make this post criticizing non Spanish-speaking Latinxs, but more so criticizing the system in which we live in that pushes them to identify with the Latinx culture.

Here’s an example:

You look at someone like Renee Zellweger, a first generation American whose parents are from Sweden and Norway. With her, you rarely see headlines or stories about her being a Swedish/Norwegian American actress. You don’t really see people making her ethnic background a topic of discussion (other than when she got plastic surgery). The fact that she never really acknowledges her foreign background is not really questioned either.

She was born just a couple of miles away from where I was born in Texas. Yet, everyone accepts her as being a Texas girl, an American, a white woman.

But take someone like Jessica Alba, a third generation American (that’s right, folks, more American than Renee Zellweger) whose great-grandparents on her dad’s side were Mexican immigrants, and the idea of her wanting to be labeled just an “actress” as opposed to a “Latina” actress becomes controversial.

Her being a brown-skinned third generation American whose last name resembles that of a Latinx, but refuses to be called a “Latina” actress, somehow makes her ashamed of her culture.

(Just to clarify, Jessica Alba doesn’t reject her identity as a Latina. She simply does not want to be the token Latina actress that is forced into portraying a stereotypical Latina character that belittles or downplays the awesomeness/diversity of what being a Latina really is.)

Her being criticized for being “ashamed” of her ethnic background is what I think makes a lot of non Spanish-speaking Latinxs identify with the Latinx culture.

Because let’s face it, is our society ever going to accept a person who looks Latinx or whose name is Natalie Hernandez as being labeled an American as opposed to being labeled a Latina? People are almost always going to assume that she is of Latino/Hispanic descent and label her as such. Even with her being a fifth generation American, again, making her more American than Renee Zellweger, she will always be the Latina and Renee Zellweger will always be the American.

So what choice do they have when neither side wants to fully embrace them?

This is something that I’ve also seen with people who are bicultural. One of the best examples that I can think of are people who are half black and half white. They seem to not be fully accepted into the black culture because they’re not considered to be fully black. Yet, they’ll also never be considered white. So where do they fit in?

I’m starting to realize, though, that not being able to speak Spanish doesn’t always mean you don’t know anything about the Latino culture. You could be fully in tune with your Latino roots, even when you don’t speak Spanish.

You could be fully aware of the struggles Latinos go through because you, too, could have been hurled insults about being a wetback or have been told to go back home, even when the U.S. is the only home you’ve known. You, too, could have been strategically placed at the bottom of a pile of job applications because someone thinks your name sounds too ethnic or assume that because you look Latino, you’re not educated or skilled enough.

It’s ironic that I criticize Latinos who don’t speak Spanish, because I, too, am rejected by the group of people with whom I identify.

I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. Both of my parents immigrated from Mexico in the 80s, and I’m sure that Spanish was my first language growing up. But as time went by and the more time I spent surrounded by people who didn’t speak Spanish, my Spanish worsened. Now when my parents speak to me in Spanish, there’s a difference.

Our conversations go something like this:

Mom: A donde vas?

Me: School.

Mom: Y como vas en la escuela?

Me: I’m doing well.

I get a ton of slack for this. My mom constantly tells me to not forget my Spanish, and others scorn me for not being able to speak Spanish grammatically correct at times. People also tell me I’m a white-washed Mexican or that I speak English pretty well for a Latina, which is not a compliment if you really think about it.

If I were to go to Mexico, I would probably be seen as a gringa, even though I speak Spanish and look Latina. They would reject me the same way I seem to reject those who don’t speak Spanish, because they would rightfully assume that I don’t know much about what it’s like to be a real Mexican and therefore, I’m not one of them.

Their disapproving looks would be confirmation that I’m not Mexican enough.

So I get it, and I’m sorry it took me so long to stop being an ignorant, close-minded Latina. I now see that having to try to prove to someone that you’re worth being embraced into their culture and space can be frustrating.

I can’t say that I welcome you with open arms yet, but I’m trying. I’m getting there.

Just a brown girl talking about #Latinx problems..Find me, tweet me, if you want to reach me. @valeriammerino

(Side note: I hesitated for months about whether to write about this publicly because it seemed semi-controversial, at least in the world of Latinxs. But whatevs, I’m putting it all out there in hopes of creating more discussion around the topic.)