Post By Valentina Forte-Hernandez
I don’t speak Spanish fluently. I have felt a lot of embarrassment in my life because of it, but that is the truth plain and simple. Because I am a white Latina who does not speak Spanish, I have been disregarded as a Latina countless times in my life. I am sick and tired of people acting like there are some sort of requirements you have to meet to be Latina. Being Latina is not about meeting some mythical standard, it’s not about having certain skills or traits. I am Latina because I was born that way, because of my childhood, because of the way I feel. Being Latina is something no one can take away from me. Yes, I do want to learn Spanish, but learning Spanish will not make me anymore of a Latina than I am already.
I am biracial, I am white and Latina and I have very light skin. This, plus the fact that I am not a fluent spanish speaker has made it very difficult for a lot of people to accept that I am a Latina. I often get a “Really?” when I tell someone I’m Mexican, and people have even thought that I was joking when I told them about my identity. I’m used to people being surprised when I tell them I’m Mexican and even though that makes me feel weird it it does not hurt as badly as it does when people act like my only claim to my heritage is my last name. I am not exaggerating, people have actually said “She thinks being Latina is just about a last name” about me multiple times. People don’t like to see me as a full person, they treat me like my whiteness washes away all the Latina in me. the fact that I don’t speak fluent Spanish provides more ammunition for those who like to deny my identity. I could go into detail and explain why I am not fluent after 19 years of varying amounts of Spanish but I don’t owe anyone the explanation. I am happy to talk about it with anyone who asks me personally, but those who are just waiting to jump to the conclusion that I’m not a real Mexican don’t deserve my story.
I am still self conscious about my language skills and that is something I am working to get over but I am grounded in my identity. I still feel embarrassed when I’m practicing Spanish and someone gives me a dirty look and says to their friends, “She’s not really Mexican” as if I can’t understand them. FYI, I understand way more than I can speak so if you talk smack about me in Spanish, there’s a good chance I’ll know what you’re saying. It is an exception rather than a rule for someone to insult me when I am practicing Spanish. Generally, people encourage me to practice by speaking to me and helping me through it. The times where people are cruel, the times people do say I’m not Latina never fail to bring me back to a place where I feel ashamed of myself. Recently I was practicing Spanish with a friend and when I overheard someone talking about how bad my Spanish was I felt paralyzed and though I knew how to say what I was trying to communicate, I just gave up and ended the conversation because I was so embarrassed.
Today I am as Mexican as I will be tomorrow, as Mexican as I will be when I speak better Spanish, I am as Mexican as I will ever be right now. Yes, I want to learn Spanish, but I will not let shame be my motivator. I want to learn Spanish for myself, I want to learn Spanish so I can speak to my grandpa in his first language, I want to learn Spanish so that when the whole family gets together for christmas nobody has to slow down for me. I want to learn Spanish because it is a beautiful language and I would be proud to speak it, and write it. I am not learning Spanish because I have something to prove, I do not need to know the language fluently to validate my identity as a Latina. I am Latina because I was born that way and because I care strongly about my identity and have a deep connection to my community. I am white and latina, being white doesn’t make me any less Latina nor does being Latina mean I am not white. My identity is complete and complicated and while words can sting they could never take away any part of me. I always have and always will be Mexican, that is the truth that I do not owe anyone, but I am willing to talk about it. Say and think what you will about me, but your words will never diminish my sense of self. No one can erase the childhood experience that shaped my identity, nothing will ever keep my heart from warming when I hear voices singing“cielito lindo.” I will continue to work and fight for my community and I don’t care if you deny me. So go ahead, tell me I’m not Latina, say I’m just a last name, laugh at my Spanish. I know who I am, I know what I’ve done and I don’t need anyone’s validation. I am going to learn Spanish and I am doing it for myself.
I am sad to say this is my last day working for NLIRH and my last post for Nuestra Vida Nuestra Voz. It has been a pleasure to work with these poderosas, and I have learned so much about myself and my community. Entonces yo digo adios y muchas gracias con un beso y abrazo.