When people tell me I’m not Latina enough I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve heard this phrase being used to describe me so many times it’s really messed up how I identify. My mom is Ecuadorian but my dad is Polish and Irish. My race is white, and I consider myself a Latina because that is my ethnicity, it is the culture to which I am closest to. Growing up went something like this: I ate pierogies and tostones on the same day, and at home, my parents spoke to each other in different languages. I chose Spanish as my elective in high school because it was an easy A, even though I hated speaking Spanish to anyone but my mom (I’ve been told by native speakers that I sound like a white girl when I try). I definitely have had to grow a thick skin because apparently me being a Latina and a white girl, is such a novel idea that people always feel the need to tell me what ethnic group I belong to.
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Speaking in English means I’m not Latina enough
Just last week a fellow Ecuadorian told me “What kind of a Latina doesn’t speak Spanish?? My son grew up in the United States just like you, but he speaks perfect Spanish. There’s no reason for you not to speak Spanish.” It was like me being in his very presence offended him. He went on to tell me how I’m not Latina enough, that I’m whitewashed, and continued to berate me. He was my taxi cab driver, by the way, and I was late to my destination, so there was no way out. I think I handled it like a champ, but I had tears in my eyes by the time I got out.
So if I were to go by this person’s logic, I’m not a real Latina. If my Ecuadorian mom is not enough to make me, her daughter, a Latina, then do all my hours watching the movie Selena on repeat count? What about being forced to eat onions in my empanadas as a little kid, listening to San Juanitos, or the herbal baths my grandmother gave me when I was acting up? Or all the times my mom rubbed an egg over my body, hoping to restore spiritual balance in my life? Not to mention my first CD was Shakira’s Grandes Éxitos, and I listened to it on repeat on my MP3 player, until I finally dropped it and it shattered.
Even though I’m so proud of who I am today, growing up I always struggled with my identity and this experience reminded me of how much I wanted to find acceptance within one group when I was younger. It’s funny that I’m now ridiculed for acting too “white” when I experienced the exact opposite as a little kid. In the fifth grade I moved out of the urban school district I attended, to a predominantly white area in the suburbs. On the first day at my new school, I remember being invited to sit with a group of girls at lunchtime.
My experience growing up in the suburbs
Just as I was starting to introduce myself, another girl came up to the group, and asked, “How are you even sure she speaks English?” She had judged me based on the fact that I looked more ethnic: my skin was darker than hers. I felt so embarrassed, and that memory is still ingrained in my brain as if it happened yesterday. What made me different had already been pointed out for me, and it was done so in a way that highlighted a negative stereotype: Latinos don’t know how to speak English. It wasn’t until I entered middle school that I found a group of friends that accepted me for who I was, and they were made up of all different colors and ethnicities.
And you know what? I learned to love my school and my classmates. Just like there are adults who are ignorant and some who are accepting, there will be some children who mirror their parent’s attitudes towards others. I have different layers when it comes to my identity, and I think that should be celebrated. In some ways, I am more American than I am Latino, but I hold strongly to my Latin culture because it was, and still is, very influential in my life.
So, if you have a problem with me identifying as a Latina I have just one thing to tell you: it’s okay to feel that way, but I sure as hell feel bad for you. I’m sorry that you feel so threatened by a young woman, that you feel the need to put me down. I want to apologize that my existence, and many others who are like me, Latinos born in the U.S., threaten your entire ideology as to what it means to be a true Latina.
I’m not going to stop being a Latina because I don’t speak Spanish fluently. I speak English because I was born in the United States, I grew up in New Jersey, and I attended school districts where my teachers were English-speaking. Somewhere along the line, speaking Spanish was put on the back burner. Do you want to know why? Because I’m also an American, and this is the country I grew up in, and plenty of people here speak English. It’s the language I feel most comfortable with.
Being told I’m not Latina enough is a direct hit to my self-esteem. It hurts when the people of the ethnicity I consider myself to be a part of, discriminate against me. Of course, not everyone is so ignorant, but I’ve been told I’m not Latina enough repeatedly, my taxi cab incident is just one of the more recent times I’ve been discriminated against. As much as I love my Latin culture for its wonderful people and diversity, we are not immune to ignorance and internal racism.
Is there a hierarchy when it comes to being Latino?
Of course. I wish I could say the hierarchy Latinos have created for themselves isn’t real but it is. I want to shake people and tell them “You’re not better than anyone else! We are all equal.” But I guess as humans we have an innate need to categorize ourselves, in a way, that will hopefully make us feel better and assert that we are valued in society.
Nobody should have to justify who they are. There are many facets to what makes up my identity, and being Latina is just one of them. If you don’t have a problem with me identifying as a woman, then you certainly shouldn’t have a problem with me identifying as a Latina. I can’t change the fact that I’m a woman just as much as I can’t change the fact that I’m a Latina. I was born with ovaries, and I was birthed by an Ecuadorian woman. These are facts.
That’s all I have to say on this subject manner. I hope I didn’t cause anyone’s panties to get in a bunch, but I think starting a conversation on what it means to be “Latina Enough” is important. In an effort to become inclusive we have excluded others who do not fit the stereotypical role of what it means to be a Latina, and to that, I say it doesn’t matter. I am who I am, and I don’t have to pull out receipts to prove it.