Growing up half-Mexican, half-White, my Mexican and Hispanic culture played subtle role in my life. It was there when my dad said “chonclas” instead of “flip-flops.” It was there when he made arroz con pollo. It was there at Christmas time when we had tamales at my grandparents. It was there when we ate menudo at my aunt’s and uncle’s home on Sunday, or went to festivals at my grandparents’ church. It was there when I called my grandma, Abuela, and my grandpa, Abuelo. It wasn’t a dominant force in my life, but it was there.
Back in the 1960s when my grandmother and grandfather moved with my dad and his siblings to North Texas, my grandma decided not to teach my dad and his brother and sisters to speak Spanish. This was before the time that bilingualism was thought of as “cool” or a great asset to a work resume. This was during a time in which being “other,” or “not white,” wasn’t that great in the U.S. and could lead to discrimination of all sorts.
So my dad didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. And when I was born, I wasn’t taught Spanish either. Yes, I knew a few words here and there, but no one on my Mexican side could speak Spanish. And that wasn’t odd to me.
It wasn’t until I got older that me not speaking Spanish became a “thing.” I started feeling like I lacked something by not speaking Spanish – that I wasn’t able to interact or connect with the Spanish-speaking community as well. So I enthusiastically enrolled in Spanish classes all throughout school and even got a minor in Spanish in college. This feeling of “not being Hispanic enough” wasn’t something that I just made up in my head. It began with negative comments from others.
It was like a knife to my stomach when young non-Hispanic persons (and a few first/second generation Mexican Americans) said, “If you can’t speak Spanish you’re not really Mexican/Hispanic.”
This thought process didn’t make sense.
My entire life, older generations of Spanish speakers had always spoke Spanish to me and when I fumble or got nervous, they still waited patiently for me to reply. If I replied in English to their Spanish question, they continued speaking to me in Spanish and we are able to converse well enough.
They obviously saw me as Hispanic. And the world does too.
When Trump spoke such malicious words about Mexicans, I was personally enraged and fearful. When people ask me what my ethnicity is and I say half-Mexican, half-White and then they ask me where my dad is from (Texas, I reply) and then where my grandparents are from (Texas, I reply again), they’re doing that, because they’re trying to figure out where my family is originally from in Mexico.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to break this down, but for some “friends” or associates, I’ve had to. You don’t have to speak a language of your culture to still be of that culture. A young Chinese American girl is no less connected to her Chinese ancestry for not speaking Chinese than her counterparts who do. Her experiences may be slightly different, but she is tied to the culture through history, family, and how society behaves toward her. For instance, her family may celebrate Chinese New Year. Her mother may have sent her to school with Chinese dishes versus a peanut butter sandwich. And she may be subjected to racist slurs or stereotypes associated with Chinese persons from others throughout her life.
And then there’s the other side of the argument. “If you can’t speak Spanish, then you’re just American.” I am American, but that doesn’t mean you can white wash my ethnicity right down the drain. It doesn’t work like that.
Culture and identity is not wrapped up in one thing — language. Cultural identity is the food you eat, how your family interacts with each other, the way they greet one another, the inside jokes that other cultures don’t understand, how you celebrate holidays, how you don’t celebrate holidays, the stereotypes that are directed at you, and yes, sometimes it’s about the language you speak or don’t speak, but it is not determined inherently by that one thing.
To say otherwise, well, to me, is offensive.
I may have not grown up speaking Spanish, but I connected with my Mexican and Hispanic side in ways that I could not on my White side, as we have never been able to specifically identify our ethnic background on my mother’s side.
I don’t have to speak a language to feel connected to my roots, because a language does not make a person or their history.
Through my own journey, I discovered what being Mexican meant to me, and today, I’m proud to feel confident in who I am and where I come from.