Not Speaking Spanish

I spent most of my life with nonexistent ties and a fictitious understanding of the Hispanic culture I love so much.  I had an undefined and peculiar cultural influence, considering my roots.  I grew up as a Puerto Rican & Italian girl most often not-so-endearingly referred to as, the white girl. My mother relocated several times throughout my childhood, eventually traveling all the way from New York to Oregon, with plenty of stops in between.  Once we were in Oregon, she moved to California but I stayed in Oregon.  Around the time she moved back to Oregon, I moved to California.  I grew up speaking English and not speaking Spanish. Definitely not Italian. During my teenage years, I secretly hated Mexicans.  I hated the girls for making me feel unwanted and white.  I hated Mexicans as a whole, as a result of a few undocumented Mexican males who tried to sexually assault me, several times.  I don’t know that I ever said that out loud, but I did. I hated them.  They were all the same.  At least, I told myself.  Aside from the Cubans, I hadn’t been been exposed to many Hispanics /Latinos growing up.  Consequently, I just assumed all Latinos were Mexicans.  I mean, logistically, I knew that couldn’t be true, but I didn’t really know how to decipher one raza from the other, based solely on appearances. So, I just assumed that all the Latinos I crossed paths with, were Mexican.  I never knew my father so I didn’t have his Puerto Rican influence, unless you count my thick and course hair or extra packed and rounded butt.  Italian? Even less!  I mean, unless you count eating a lot of spaghetti and the occasional lasagna my mother used to make.

Growing up, my best friend (not including Jessie) was a Black boy.  He was my very best friend! His name was Tutt.  He was awesome.  We played together every day and my childhood memories wouldn’t be the same without him. This is significant, because I believe he was the reason I arbitrarily loved Black people.  To this day, I periodically wonder what happened to him! I also pray for him.  He lived in the Projects.  The Projects weren’t the best place to grow up.  Of course, I lived on the street next to the Projects, so we were pretty much surrounded by the same “neighbors.” Are you beginning to see my flawed mentality growing up, and the unfortunate situation I was in, that no one was teaching me any different mentality or reasoning?  I grouped people together based on their color, my huge lack of knowledge about each ethnicity, and my personal experiences with only a few individuals from each group.  Based on that, I determined my feelings for entire cultures.  I must not forget to mention that I also didn’t like white girls.  You know, because they were all rich?  Actually, I didn’t like most girls.  I enjoyed fighting Black girls because I could usually squash any issues I had with them, including being bullied by them, with a simple one-on-one fight.  By the time I was twelve, I was the minority, so I went through my share of being bullied based on the color of my skin.  I thought the Cuban girls were all sluts and I hated them because several took advantage of my longing to speak Spanish.  They would pretend to teach me something, then have me use the newly taught phrase on a stranger.  While I thought I was saying, “Hi! Nice to meet you,” I was actually saying stuff like, “Hi sexy! Give me a kiss, daddy!”  There were some close calls and I quickly stopped trusting those whores!

It must feel very awkward for you to read such incredibly offensive ideas and words, from me.  There’s no way around it though. In order for you to understand this journey, you need to understand the stops along the way.  Those were my adolescent thoughts.

We’ll never get to the point of me sharing this story if I don’t fast-forward, so let’s take leap a into my twenties.  By that time, I had my firm beliefs about other people and a very convincing facade of who I was.  On the inside, I was dying.  I didn’t know who I was.  I didn’t belong.  I didn’t have culture.  I didn’t even have the American culture, because in my mind, I grew up too poor to know what that culture was.  Plus, and more importantly, I wasn’t White, which all the White people seemed to remind me of frequently.  I longed to speak Spanish and identify with my Hispanic Heritage.

I would have rather been asked about when and how I lost my virginity than answer the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” I never had an answer.  I felt so uncomfortable, I’d begin to stutter and answer that question with a question.  One day, after meeting the Mexican dude who would eventually become my husband, I had an answer!  At a large family gathering, his cousin, in front of everyone, asked me where I was from.  This time, I had the perfect answer!  I wasn’t ashamed anymore.  Simply, I was a “mutt,” a mix of cultures.  So, with every ounce of confidence I could muster, I said…

Soy una perra!

I had begun learning Spanish and believed I knew it much better than I did.  I assumed I was telling her I was a dog, like the mixed dogs referred to as mutts.  Instead, I loudly declared that I was a BITCH!  My husband still teases me about that one.  I was humiliated.  From the looks on everyone’s faces, I knew I had said something terrible!

I never expected to make a life with a Mexican, but I did.  We had five children and my secret dreams of being bilingual came true.  It wasn’t easy though.  I watched a lot of Spanish language soap operas and made many inappropriate comments along the way.  I longed to have a meaningful relationship with my mother-in-law so I practiced my Spanish all the time.  Growing up, I was angry about my lack of identity.  It wasn’t fair.  I felt so alone. I didn’t belong.  Anywhere.

In my thirties, I was well blended into California living.  Truly, it’s the melting pot the phrase is derived from.  We have every culture, and my closed-minded ideas began to expand.  I was absolutely shocked by how many 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants I became friends with.  I couldn’t believe how many of them who did not speak Spanish, or their respective “rightful language.”  I didn’t really judge the Asians who didn’t speak their language.  I couldn’t tell you why, but…

Querida Latina, I judged you.  Maybe it’s because I spent my whole life feeling shunned by girls/women like you.  Then, I find out that there are an infinite amount of you who flaunt your Latino culture and you don’t even speak Spanish?  You spent your life proudly and outwardly identifying with your culture while I wandered through life without any culture?  I speak Spanish and you don’t? How dare you! Right?  I’m obviously more Latina than you are.  Now who’s the perra?

I had another group to hate.  I hated you!

Becoming a mother was the most humbling experience in my life.  My children are Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Italian.  They are very proud of their Hispanic roots and are bilingual.  Even so, maybe they’ll feel some of what I felt, growing up.  There is so much division.  Latinos can be so mean to each other.  A lot of Salvadorean people don’t like Mexican people.  A lot of  Mexican people don’t like Mexicans from D.F. Light skinned people are pitted against los mas prietos and vice-versa.  Bilingual people judge Spanish only speaking people. Spanish only speaking people judge English only speaking people.  We put on a facade of a culture, united and focused on equality.  It’s not true though.  Some of us are united. Some of us are as ignorant as I was.  Over time, I began to understand my own ignorance.  I repented.  I tried to teach my children to think differently. I challenged them to be honest with themselves.  Personally, I erased beliefs that were triggered and nurtured by stereotypical ideas.  I changed. Completely.  I now proudly and outwardly identify with my culture.  Just because I now feel accepted by my culture, doesn’t mean that I have more participatory rights now than I did in the past!  Shame on me. I judged.  I hated.  I actively practiced racism.  I feel nauseous writing that.  I want to deny it.  I want to undo it.  I can’t.  We can’t.

Every time we like or don’t like someone because of our own closed-minded and preconceived ideas, based on race, color, and culturing upbringing, we are practicing racism.  We are teaching it to our children.  A friend recently made the argument that we can’t honestly say, “we don’t see color.” I believe she has a point.  But, we can make a very conscious decision to not be influenced by it.  I’ve made that choice.  I didn’t always.

Latinos cannot be defined simply by ethnicity, spoken language, or skin color.  We should not allow others to define us in this way. We are many.  We are different.  Our upbringing, ideas, and stories are different.

We must embrace our differences.  As long as we continue to limit our own perception of what it means to be Latino, so will everyone else.  We aren’t all alike.  We don’t fit the overplayed stereotypes.  We shouldn’t play into them.

I wish that growing up I had the peace and sense of identity I have now.  I have learned from my erroneous mentality and teach my children to be smarter than I was.  Querida Latina, I Judged You For Not Speaking Spanish. I’m Sorry.

We all have some story about feeling like we aren’t culturally, enough. What’s yours?