Person of Color Column: Language does not define my identity


Jade Lopez – Graphic by Ally Rzesa / Beacon Staff

By Jade Lopez

When someone hears my last name, they often tell me something along the lines of “I didn’t know you were Hispanic.” 

Growing up in a predominantly white area in Thurmont, Maryland, this statement was typically followed by “Well, you don’t look like it.” This never really bothered me until I moved to Boston.

When I came to college, I thought these comments would finally end because I thought Boston would be a more diverse and accepting place—quickly, I was proven wrong. Now, instead of being told “Well, you don’t look like it” or something of that sentiment, people will say to me, “Say something in Spanish, then.” My discomfort doesn’t come from me telling them that I don’t speak the language, or following it with the explanation that my Puerto Rican father left when I was little, but from the tone of voice and facial expressions I receive after.

The look of dissatisfaction or judgment that emerges across their faces and the snarky tone of  “oh” or “mhm” that follows after I explain makes me question myself—does not speaking Spanish make me less Hispanic? 

Confessing that I don’t speak Spanish has always been something I was ashamed to admit because it made me feel I couldn’t claim my Hispanic identity. This feeling, called “language insecurity” in the academic community, is especially common among second-generation Latinx people in the U.S., according to Amelia Tseng, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Tseng stated that some people simply may not want to learn Spanish. 

“That’s OK, let’s celebrate all identities, and not just the ones we think are correct,” Tseng told NPR. 

Suddenly, all those memories of jamming out to my favorite Latino artists, making fajitas at 2 a.m., opening Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, and honoring Hispanic Heritage Month meant something less than what they were: times where I embraced my Hispanic culture. All because I can’t speak the language.

A huge part of who I am feels erased by the stigma around being a “real” Hispanic or Latina—defined by being able to speak Spanish—all because I speak a different colonizer’s language. Even though I wasn’t given a choice or the resources to learn the language, society claims it’s a large part of what defines my identity.

My Puerto Rican ancestors went through the Spanish-American War, having their territory and homes taken over by Americans who filled their heads with false promises and fake hope. Although the colonizers had promised to leave the territory as it was, the U.S. instead ignored the new, democratically elected local parliament of Puerto Rico in favor of creating its own colonial system. Puerto Ricans were outraged after the war. Instead of becoming citizens, they were in limbo. They couldn’t even have a passport; they didn’t have any legal standing in the U.S. system until 1917, 19 years after the war began.

So to those who think speaking Spanish qualifies someone as Hispanic or Latinx, think again. What my past generations went through, and what Puerto Rico is still going through, is a fight to survive. Nearly 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents live in poverty; the median household income as of 2017 was $19,775. Since Hurricane Maria, many parts of Puerto Rico have scarce amounts of food, medicine, and drinking water, amid a growing humanitarian crisis. What my ancestors went through has nothing to do with the language they spoke, so why should I have to identify with it?

The belief that a cultural identity is based on if a person speaks a certain language has led me to isolate myself from my own identity. Throughout my life, I’ve always felt like I was teetering between my American and Hispanic ethnicity for this reason.

I don’t have to prove that I am Hispanic or Latinx to anyone. Choosing to celebrate my ethnicity, deciding to follow set traditions for my culture, and being able to speak a language or not does not make me any more or less of who I am: a Hispanic.

To the other Hispanic or Latinx people who feel the same societal expectations to learn a language we weren’t brought up on—you’re just as Hispanic as those who speak Spanish. You are Hispanic enough.