On Being Hispanic/Latinx
We are at the tail end of Hispanic Heritage month in the United States, which runs from September 15th to October 15th. During that month, we celebrate the Hispanic/Latinx community, the multiple cultures in it and the amazing people who have blazed or are currently blazing a path for the next generation. This year has been a tumultuous year. We are living during a pandemic while dealing with constant social injustices especially in the BIPOC/Latinx communities through systemic racism and white supremacy.
With that said, I’ve been fortunate enough to partake in a couple of virtual events celebrating Hispanic/Latinx heritage. Seeing people of different backgrounds, personalities, ages, orientations, has inspired me. This is what Hispanic Heritage month is about. Opening ourselves up to our fellow Hispanic/Latinx people but also the world so they can see our true selves, our pride, our cultures, our passions and contributions. I am learning and growing every day, not only as a person but when it comes to my background and the Latinx/Hispanic culture as well. So, here I am to share my story about speaking Spanish. This is a big thing for a lot of Latinx/Hispanic folks, especially those who are first generation. Unfortunately, you get discounted if you’re a Latinx/Hispanic person who doesn’t speak Spanish or at least speak it well.
For those who don’t know, I am a first generation Dominican American. My parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the early 1980’s with my sister and brother. They landed in Washington Heights, a heavily Dominican populated area in upper Manhattan and then moved to The Bronx when I was born. For those who don’t know, The Bronx, in the 80’s was really, REALLY, rough. It still is, being the most poorest congressional districts in the United States at the moment.
Don’t tell me this isn’t a Dominican House! Look at the plastic on the couches! And look at my brother laughing at me and being a hater but apparently, I was feeling myself and my cuteness. Still cute…shoot…
Being a first gen child is…complicated. Growing up, my parents spoke to me in Spanish since it was all they knew. Technically, it was my first language. But as my young brother and sister began taking English as a Second Language (ESL) at school, they would speak to me in English. My parents would get so upset that they’d speak English to me. “Se hablas solo español en la casa! (We speak only Spanish in the house!).” As you can imagine, over time, as I learned from my siblings and eventually Pre-School, English became my first language. This language barrier would only make things harder between my parents and I over time.
As I got older, I developed interests in some rock music thanks to my then teenaged sister’s obsession with hairbands such as Motley Crüe, Poison, and Guns n’ Roses. I began to get into comic books after watching X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghost Busters cartoons on Saturday Mornings. All of these things, well, were in English. They seeped into my young forming mind and began to take Spanish’s place. It was hard to focus since Mami would be blasting merengue, bachata and salsa as she cleaned the house during my cartoon time. God forbid I leave my room and step on the wet floor that she had just mopped with Faboloso. It would’ve been the end of me. During the week, it was rock riffs and weekends were about bachata licks.
Me trying to watch cartoons. This photo screams 80’s/90’s. The plastic covered couches again, the shorts, the Christmas tree, the ceramic swan. Times were simple yet awesome.
My parents took me to the Dominican Republic around 8 or 9 years old to visit my aunt who was dying (and eventually passed away while I was there). My Spanish was machucado (butchered/crushed). When I did, it was mainly to my parents. They would apologize on my behalf after someone would ask me a question and I would answer in my broken Spanish. They would “translate” what I was trying to say to the person. Over time, I didn’t want to speak it anymore unless if I had to. I would get mad that no one understood me but deep down inside, I was mad at myself and embarrassed. I felt dumb.
Over time, I felt like I wasn’t Dominican enough for the Dominicans and not American enough for the Americans. This caused a major identity crisis for me (and I still deal with on occasion). Working at my brother in law’s bodega at 12/13 years old, I encountered the usual characters you’d find but also the abuelos, abuelitas and unfortunately their boracho (drunk) equivalents who would speak to me in slurred Spanish and their tempers would flare up when I didn’t understand them. Another benefit I would’ve had if I had better Spanish skills.
In High School, I ended up taking Spanish classes because well, I was a teenager and thought it would be easy to pass. I did okay. I still didn’t feel good enough to speak it conversationally with other Hispanics/Latinos. My friends from Central and South America would speak Spanish so well, or maybe they were bad too but I couldn’t tell the difference since I sucked at it. Either way, it would eat me up inside to not being able to speak it well. During these years, I would go to Dominican Republic with my parents and my dad would take me around different historical sites and landmarks. He’d explaining the history in the most simplest of Spanish so that I made sure to understand the significance of these locations. It made me feel closer to the island, the culture and to my parents.
I used to work in the Administration office in HS. Man, look at that sharp hairline…Damn…I really took it for granted. Also, that was the look in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.
In college, I enrolled in Spanish classes on my own. Slowly, I was able to improve my speaking, writing and comprehension. It didn’t hurt I had a Latina professor who wouldn’t let us get away with anything. I also took a Dominican History class so that I can learn more about the island. I learned about the early years and formation of the island from its early days of Hispañola (current day Haiti/Dominican Republic). My Dominican professor made sure to address the Colorism/Racism that Dominicans have and our relations with Haiti. He reminded us of the mix of European, Taino and African genes since a lot of folks in the Dominican community seem to forget or omit the African part of our background.
It really made me think about the culture more holistically and open-mindedly since that noticed those things before. My family is all different skin tones so I didn’t think about the racial aspect of it until then. When I was little, they would call me “Huevito” (Little Egg) when I was little since I was so white and round as you saw above. Being a light-skinned Dominican/Latinx person, I didn’t really deal with any harsh or direct racism. The class opened my eyes onto the real world and how things really are. Only after I entered the corporate world after college did my skin tone/background became more apparent to me since I worked with more caucasians, especially those in higher positions.
Haiti and Dominican Republic.
It’s been years since I graduated college but my parents acknowledged my efforts and improvements when it comes to speaking their language. I’ve been able to have deeper conversations, joke around more and connect with them better. I still struggle with a few words and they still correct me every once in a while. But it’s fine because we understand each other better now. Every thing I’ve done has been to make them proud and to not let the sacrifices they’ve made to come and be here, be in vain.
The things they did and values they taught me, didn’t always have to be said. I would also see those values: work hard, treat people with respect, be good to people, look after familia and each other, always keep learning, save as much as you can and so many other principles. Those were the things I learned beyond the lengua. These are the values I hold within me every day and can’t wait to instill them into my future kids one day. As well as teach my kids Spanish because if not, my Mami will come after me with the chancleta.
My Papi and Mami and my little suited ass lol. My parents do look sharp though! Now I think I know why I hate clowns…
Thank you for reading. My hopes are that if you’re:
- speak Spanish or not
- first generation, fourth generation or just arriving to a new country
- Young, Old, In-between
- Religious, Spiritual or not
- and anything else that I may have forgotten…
To remember that we’re all Familia.
We will have our differences, we will fight and hate each others sports teams but we have to try our best to help and support each other, our communities and make sure to raise each other up. No one can do it alone and you are not alone. We are 60 million strong in the United States and 626 million strong in the world. Let’s bring our authentic selves wherever we are and let the world deal with it.
“No one cares as much about our community more than us.”
— STEVEN WOLF PEREIRA
What about you? Are you a first generation child of immigrants that came to the states? Or a young kid when you came here and had to adjust to a new life?