Editor’s Note: This story is part of a collection of work by Xochitl Gonzalez that was the finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
Welcome, dear reader, to Hispanic Heritage Month! The only heritage month that, like many of us whom it celebrates, exists across borders—of time, that is (in this case, the months of September and October!). It’s a four-week period where my calendar is as jam-packed as Dolores Del Rio’s dance card at the Trocadero.
I have mixed feelings about these calendar-based celebrations. On the one hand, I like seeing our stories and history given a brighter light—particularly considering that Latinos make up nearly 20 percent of the American population right now. On the other hand, given that statistic, I personally won’t be satisfied until that light shines on our stories around 20 percent of the time, 100 percent of the year.
Either way, for the next four weeks, I will ride the bandwagon and dedicate this space to what I will call “Hispanic Concerns”. Or, more accurately, “My Hispanic Concerns”. Stuff that really interests me, or sticks in my craw, both within my community and regarding how the outside world perceives us. This week: language.
A conundrum of the Latino experience in the United States is that we are an ethnic identity defined by nuance and diversity, who exist within a national conversation that is allergic to nuance and can’t really wrap its head around either. Hispanics (and I use the two terms interchangeably; if you want to know why I’m not using Latinx, please see here) are not a race, we are not universally immigrants, and we do not all speak Spanish.
This last piece perhaps is most befuddling, and occasionally distressing, to both white non-Hispanics as well as some subsections of the Hispanic community. As a Latina who does not speak fluent Spanish, and is very cognizant of the painful history as to why, nothing is more amusing and infuriating than the crestfallen look of a white non-Hispanic when they ask if you are fluent in Spanish and you say no. There’s often an awkward moment of silence when you can visibly see the person’s confusion, when they no longer know where to place you in their personal taxonomy system for other people’s identities.
In the old days, when people still felt comfortable saying the quiet parts out loud—roughly as recently as the late aughts—admitting I don’t speak Spanish to a white non-Hispanic might yield statements like, “So you’re not really Latina.” This reaction would render me both ashamed at my perceived deficiency and obliged to defend myself. I found myself overexplaining my comprehension skills and awkwardly apologizing for my grandparents, who—like so many others—were shamed and taunted for speaking Spanish and who, in an effort to shield their descendants from that discrimination, made English the dominant language of the household. And how, unlike my parents, I just never picked it up.