“Miralo, ella tiene un nopal en la frente…”
This statement has followed me everywhere from supermarkets when I’m purchasing a copious amount of masa to my own place of employment when a customer asks where the nearest dressing room is.
It translates to, “Look, she has a cactus on her forehead…”
This statement essentially aims to describe Mexicans who waltz around with the intent of pretending that they aren’t Mexican. As a cactus on a forehead is obvious, the physical appearance of some Mexicans—such as skin tone or facial features—may be obvious at times too. Therefore, denying your ethnicity when it’s so apparent is as equivalent as strolling around with a cactus on one’s forehead.
I am not ashamed of my cultural background.
I am a 23-year-old Latina who enjoys menudo on Saturday mornings, cleans to the sound of Maná on Sundays and is left speechless when faced the enduring beauty of Mexican culture, persistence and pride.
However, yes, I am Mexican, and I do not speak Spanish.
With a father who immigrated from Mexico in the 70s and a mother who was born and raised in East Los Angeles, it is safe to say Mexican culture lives within my home.
Growing up, the absence of the Spanish language in my life never occurred to me as something major. I received very little judgment and never had to explain why or how I became someone who only had one language under their belt.
My grandmother, who speaks only Spanish, would communicate with me in Spanish, to which I would reply in English.
It simply worked this way. This is my explanation as to why I never faced the dire need to explicitly learn the language. I cannot remember if there had been any discussion between my parents about the fact that I wasn’t being taught the language.
It wasn’t until I was 14 that I realized, “Woah… this may be a little problematic.”
Of course, I enrolled in the general courses in high school in which I literally aced every Spanish course I faced.
Today, I can write and read the language.
So… why can’t I speak it?
The truth: I’m shy and I simply get nervous. As I grow and gradually receive shame from my elders or from other Latinos, I become hesitant to make the mistakes in speech or to ask about a simple word that any Spanish speaking five-year-old would know.
Recently, the stigma behind my issue has grown as I begin to continuously understand the benefits of being bilingual.
From job opportunities to income increases, the benefits are clear. However, from a cultural perspective, I am left out of deeper conversations or connections that I realize each day.
I, like many other Latinos who are not bilingual, constantly feel obligated to prove that I am well aware and proud of my cultural background. It is not shame or embarrassment of the culture that keeps us from furthering our bilingual development.
As the universe may have a funny way of pushing us to further ourselves and our goals, it turns out that the family of my beloved significant other speaks the one and only language of Spanish. Imagine that.
There is no gossiping with my potential mother-in-law and there are no inside jokes that exist between my father’s boyfriend and me. Upon meeting his tío, I received a scolding as to why I don’t speak Spanish. Meeting his padrinos was accompanied by a rush of nerves.
As my family went on understanding that I unfortunately didn’t learn the language, I soon realized there was the rest of the Mexican community that do not agree or share the same opinion as my family about Latinos who don’t speak the native language.
As I continue to attempt to speak the language of my people more and more each day, I have realized something important: language doesn’t equal culture.
The truth is, culture is about experiences and the story behind customs. Culture is food, art, music, tales of comedy and the abundance of achievement between people. With language being an incredible achievement of communication between people, the lack of knowledge behind that language does not take away from the knowledge that is given by experiences or given by family.
Sure, there are days when I continue to feel like a “useless Latina.”
Then there are days, like today, when I feel like a powerful Latina who understands the beauty behind Mexican culture. I know what makes me Mexican and it does not have to be proved by my breakfast choices or music taste.
I understand what and how much the language may mean to some and I respect that.
As I am able to develop a loving relationship with my potential mother-in-law, share small bits of laughter with my potential father-in-law and enjoy dinner with my own grandmother, I additionally understand that language does not bring loving communication to a halt.
Not speaking Spanish has positioned many obstacles at times, yes.
It does not mean I am not deserving of my ethnic background and all of its beauty and embrace.