no-hablo-espanol“Hola!”

“Hola! I’m sorry. No hablo español.”

“Oh, sorry…I just assumed. Aren’t you Latina?”

This exchange happens often, yet it never gets easier.

Not speaking Spanish has separated me from my culture for most of my life.  

What makes my situation even more complicated is that I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. My great-grandma hardly knew any English, and my dad is fluent in Spanish.

When I asked my dad why I was never taught Spanish, he explained that my grandma feared I would have a strong accent when speaking English. My grandma suffered discrimination due to her accent and she longed for the pattern to end with my sisters and me. To her, the best way to give us a better life than her own was to simply not teach us the language. When she passed, my dad respected her wishes and that was that.

Although a little complicated, my situation is not unique; it is the case for many children of Latin-American descent. Despite being born in predominantly Latino/a communities and raised with Latino/a traditions, they are not fluent Spanish speakers.

It is widely believed that you cannot fully experience a culture without knowing the language. While promoting people to fully experience a culture is a great thing, this ideal can lead to many Latinos and Latinas not feeling “Latino/a enough.”

I myself used to relate to these feelings of shame and guilt until I came to this realization: Knowing Spanish—or any language—is not required for you to connect with a culture you have identified with since birth.

Knowing or learning a language is not an insignificant thing either; being bilingual has plenty of everyday benefits and (literally) pays off in the workplace. But you are not a horrible person because you are not bilingual.

I came to this conclusion after meeting one of my best friends in college who is from Mexico and is a native Spanish speaker. She helped me learn more Spanish, but the knowledge I’ve gained has not had the effect I thought it would.

I always thought that learning Spanish would make me feel more like a Latina and connect me to my culture on a new level, helping me feel more included by my Spanish-speaking peers. But still, I have yet to feel any shift of effect on my cultural identity.

Your identity is not solely based on  knowing or not knowing your culture’s language. Belonging to a culture is much more than that.

Your family, personal traditions and life experiences define what it means to be Latino/a — not a language.

So you can’t roll your r’s perfectly, or you don’t know how to count past diez. So what? You are a Latino/a. That lives in your heart, not in the words you say, what language you say them in or how perfectly you say those words in another language.

Knowing a language does not legitimize or diminish your cultural identity. Only you have the power to define what that looks like.

So for those of you who have ever felt less-than compared to Spanish speakers or criticized for not being “Latino/a enough” — you are enough.

No matter what the language may be, do not let it suppress, separate or distance you from identifying as the person you are. Don’t let anyone guilt you into subscribing to their ideas of culture — including yourself.

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