About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this fall. A version of this article was originally published at LatinoRebels.com.
It happened again a few weeks ago. I was in a restaurant in Buenos Aires having brunch with a fellow Fulbright Scholar. We’re both in Argentina teaching English in the provinces. She ordered first, with ease and a smile. My order wasn’t quite as seamless. I had practiced what to say before the server reached our table, but when she arrived, the script I drafted in my head became tangled as it left my mouth. My order was choppy. Nonsensical. Bad. Nonetheless, the server understood what I meant, and went to place our orders, leaving us to sit with the mess my tongue created.
“Oh my God, your Spanish!” my brunch mate said, before laughing.
And then I felt it. The pressure in my head. The tightening between my shoulders. The slow reddening of my face. The feeling of being an impostor. A fraud. A “fake” Latino. Someone whose family is from Puerto Rico but grew up speaking English. Feelings I’ve felt my entire life. Feelings that are intensified when my Spanish is policed by non-Latinx, such as my Chinese American colleague at brunch.
I put my head on the table and began scrolling through Instagram. I didn’t want to talk about my Spanish. I know the way I sound when I pause for too long in between words, desperate for the rest of the sentence to hurry up and find me. I’m familiar with my colleague’s response, that scoff, and its underlying, thinly veiled judgment.
In Argentina, the reaction to me not knowing Spanish is different than it is in the States. Because my U.S. identity is always so visible here, it often hides many other parts of who I am. Not as many people initially question why I don’t speak Spanish because I am read as just another Yankee (a non-Latinx, English-speaking identity) and not immediately as Latinx. Whereas back home, my Latinx identity is never not visible and therefore neither is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish.
Though different on their surfaces, the experience of being a non-Spanish-speaking Latino in Buenos Aires and in Chicago overlap much more than they don’t. What these experiences share, over a distance of 5,000 miles, is that same painful vergüenza.
Confessing that I do not speak Spanish has always felt shameful and wrapped in that shame are these feelings that my Latinidad is generic, inauthentic, decorative, even — a garment I can easily put on whenever I want to feel connectedness (Latin American) or unique (U.S.) and take off whenever I no longer want to be otherized, oppressed, invisible.
The perpetuation of the idea that Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish are less Latinx because we speak a different colonizer’s language carries with it an incredibly exhausting burden of insecurity and isolation. It relegates us to an identity that is stifling and incomplete, oscillating somewhere between American and Latinx, but never quite reaching either side.
Claiming that I am less Puerto Rican because I only speak English is also an act of erasure. It erases the violent and racist history of the United States’ occupation of Puerto Rico. It erases the forced migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland in search of opportunity only to be met with the same inhumane conditions they were fleeing: state violence, inadequate health care, poor housing, exploitative wages, drugs, and disappointment.
It erases a white supremacist society’s culpability in the loss of our culture, our language, our history, and ascribes responsibility to individuals trying to survive its oppressive grip.
It erases the mornings I woke up to my mom cleaning while “La India” played on the stereo, singing every word to “Mi Mayor Venganza” with more passion than your faves ever could.
It erases the years I screamed “¡Boricua!” from a sunroof on Division Street every June.
It erases the two-bedroom apartment on Armitage and Kedzie where the six of us lived, long before Humboldt Park became a white hipster playground.
It erases the loss my grandmother felt stepping off that plane in 1959, now beneath a different moon, a universe away from her country, unsure of everything except a small, burgeoning fact in the corner of her mind, whispering to her that one day her grandkids might never be able to ask her what she missed most about The Island and why.
It erases the fact that I shouldn’t have to list any of this to prove my Latinidad, yet I am almost always having to prove myself — to those from my community and, even worse, to those who are not.
Far too often has a non-Latinx person, who has zero stake in our culture, our politics, our collective struggle, felt bold enough to comment on my “broken” Spanish. People who grew up in neighborhoods that welcomed the trendy “Latin” restaurant, but criminalized the elotero, have felt entitled enough to police my fluency in the language my parents said “I love you” in. The language my dad sang his favorite Héctor Lavoe songs in. The language my grandmother said her goodbyes in at his funeral.
And because of this, it is time we, Latinx and non-Latinx people, let go of the rigid expectations of what it means to be a “real Latinx” that give way for this toxic policing. It is time we fully accept the vastness of Latinidad. It is time we let go of these stigmatizing beliefs that to be a “real Latinx” your family must have resisted all efforts of forced assimilation. It is time we allow what it means to be a “real Latinx” to be as fluid, diverse, and multifaceted as we are.
Justin Agrelo is a writer from Chicago. He is a graduate of DePauw University and currently lives in Cordoba, Argentina. Follow him on Twitter @jagrlo.
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