Reframing the relationship between language and identity

By Christina Horacio, Staff Writer, Opinion

Within the Latine community, the criticism of non-Spanish speaking individuals—often referred to as ‘no sabo kids’—is nothing new. The scrutiny faced by ‘no sabo kids’ across social media shows just how widespread the issue is. We have been pushed to believe that we are the square peg; try as we might, we just won’t fit in. 

One user tweeted a photo of Jenna Ortega and Selena Gomez that read, “Ask them to say one sentence in Spanish and it’s over.” What followed was a thread of comments, accusing them of not being “Latina enough.”​​ The overwhelming opinion was that these women had no right to claim their heritage if they made no effort to speak the language. 

When footage was posted of Ortega promoting her new show ‘Wednesday’ in Spanish, she still received criticism because she struggled with the language.

When she doesn’t speak Spanish, she is denying her culture. When she does, she sounds too much like a ‘gringa.’ It doesn’t matter if criticism is solely directed toward Ortega, the response targets a large community of non-Spanish speaking Latines.

Many will claim that comments like these are merely jokes, just as the user of the aforementioned tweet did. The hot tears blistering my cheeks didn’t reflect my inability to take a joke, but rather my frustration at having an old wound repeatedly split open.

The lack of acceptance and stabbing accusations are disheartening. What infuriates me most is ignorance about the reasoning behind never learning Spanish. There is no acknowledgment of the deep-rooted shame and alienation that ‘no sabo kids’ can experience. 

I constantly feel punished for my father not valuing his culture enough to pass it down. Being Puerto Rican was hardly a subject of conversation growing up, nevermind teaching the language. It was never my fault that I was denied an in-depth, cultural education by the only parent that could give it; that his forced assimilation became my cross to bear.

Many non-Spanish speaking Latine people have a similar story. California-native Mariah Campos was also not taught Spanish by her father because of his experience with discrimination. 

“My dad is from Mexico, he came here around eight [years old.] He didn’t want us to be picked on or [fall] behind. There was a lot of discrimination he had to deal with. He didn’t finish much of his schooling, and because of his language barrier, that was difficult on him. I don’t think he wanted us to go through that,” said Campos. 

There is a long history of discrimination plaguing the Latine community that has dissuaded some families from passing down their native language. Instead of asserting blame, compassion should be in order. However, there is still an argument that we should have made an effort to learn ourselves. 

For me, it was never a matter of not wanting to learn. At five years old, I had a deep interest in the language. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap, asking her how to say various words a million times over. But when we moved across the country, I didn’t have access anymore. My grandparents could barely figure out how to use a flip phone, so attaining knowledge via phone calls was difficult. 

At school, the problem persisted. Formal Spanish classes didn’t cover the Puerto Rican dialect, and the overwhelming judgment from my teacher and fluent students embarrassed and discouraged me. I reluctantly dropped the class because it became too emotionally taxing.

For Campos, classes were not a viable option.

“I need a person to come sit with me and do everyday things,” she said. “Even if you learn through a class, that’s not the way that you talk at home.”

There is simply not a blanket solution for learning the language. It can prove to be difficult even for kids who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. 

Emerson senior Angelee Gonzalez is not fluent in Spanish, despite coming from a fluent household. 

“I don’t have the best aptitude for learning languages,” she said.My family definitely teased me about it. Like [I’m] ‘the white girl of the family.’ Why am I that? You’re invalidating my Puerto Rican identity just because I’m struggling with the language.”

Not only is the teasing counterintuitive to the assertion of us “needing to learn,” it pushes us out of our own community, even if it is ‘light-hearted.’

Sophomore Elise Guzman is Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican, and has also found trouble with connecting with other Latine people.

“I’ve never really fit in. Growing up, all the Hispanic kids were Mexican, so their dialect was different [from] mine. I would be friends with them, but I was never a part of their little crews,” she said.

Guzman emphasized that this can be especially tricky for non-white Latine individuals. 

“It definitely creates this identity crisis for a lot of no sabo kids—especially those who don’t look white [and] don’t want to be categorized as white. People don’t take the time to understand that there’s a lot more history that goes into it,” Guzman said. 

Even in spaces at Emerson—a predominantly white institution—that are built for people like us to feel a sense of community, it can still prove to be a feat to participate.

“I like to believe that they’re not trying to exclude anyone, but it is a little harder to get within that group,” Guzman said. “I’m not living on my islands and I don’t speak Spanish, so there was that divide. Even if they didn’t purposely make it that [way]—if anything, I took myself out of that space because I didn’t feel comfortable.”

Gonzalez also acknowledged that while our own insecurities might be to blame, the fear and discomfort is valid.

“There’s probably an argument, ‘Well, you’re imagining that.’ While in some cases we can psych ourselves out, a lot of the time it’s warranted because we are made [to be] the butt of the joke,” she said.

Natalie Taylor, a junior of Cuban descent, also voiced that imposter syndrome has made her reluctant from joining Latine theater groups.

“It feels like because I don’t speak the language, I’m not a part of the community,” Taylor said. “There’s lots of cabarets of color but I always feel I shouldn’t participate because it feels wrong.”

This common dilemma is exactly why we need to reframe the conversation surrounding language and identity. Verifying one’s ‘Latine status’ on the basis of language is not just exclusionary, but nonsensical, given the expansive variety in the dialects and languages of Latine people. 

For many like myself, the inability to speak Spanish can be a result of various pre-existing traumas. Above all, there needs to be empathy—regardless of the reasoning behind not being fluent. 

“It’s [about] having kindness, patience, [and] the understanding that the world is changing,” Guzman said. “We’re learning that people develop differently, and that’s how we progress. That way, we can continue to be a community that loves; a community that cares.”

In claiming our own heritage, we are not aiming to gloss over any differences, or claim other struggles as our own. We are merely trying to connect with what already exists within us. It’s possible to highlight these differences without calling for the erasure of who we are. The Latine community must redirect the focus to our biggest similarity: our pride in our culture.