Growing up, I felt disconnected from my community and even from my own family, more often than not. They were either fluent or knew at least some Spanish. Me? Not so much.
My grandparents and great-grandparents grew up primarily in Lubbock and Chicago, respectively. Their ancestors, from Mexico, Spain, Germany and Puerto Rico. My mom’s parents decided that once she entered elementary school, she would be forced to conform to an English-only education. As a result of her education, she would eventually raise me in an English-dominated household.
My parents learned Spanish later in life on their own. I have yet to take that initiative. The truth is, it was this communication barrier between myself, my family and my culture that caused me to feel less Mexican, less Puerto Rican.
But my skin color and Spanish last name served as a reminder that in spite of the verbal barrier, I was part of a people who express themselves through art, food and unity.
The comfort of food nullifies language barriers between me and members of my family. I feel connected when my grandma makes menudo and mole con pollo. The sight of my tias, cousins and grandparents sitting around the table, making tamales, fastened me to my culture even though they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand.
My grandfather’s arroz con gandules, a recipe passed on to his children, is my connection to him and my Puerto Rican family, even though he’s no longer with us. These link me to my Latinx heritage and identity.
Recently, there has been growing media representation of the diverse spectrum of Latinx identity.
In The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, author Benjamin Alire Sáenz writes about the struggles of not just Latinx identity but queer identity and adoption. On the TV show “Jane the Virgin,” Jane Gloriana Villanueva is an aspiring writer who struggles to find her voice through her line of work.
Throughout the show, we see characters speak to each other in English and Spanish in the same breath, a grandmother with traditional ideology transition to a more progressive mind-set and twists and turns that come straight from a Spanish telenovela.
What do all of these forms of entertainment and food have in common? When I witness these portrayals, I learn there is a spectrum of Latinx identity that surpasses language. Our cultures, beautifully ingrained in us from the moment we are born, can be expressed in their own distinct way.
Despite this, a language barrier still exists. There are plenty of young Latinx Americans who feel some sort of disconnect or distance from their identity. Latinx Americans who have to translate for their Spanish-speaking parents, who struggle to conform to an English-only education system.
That struggle shouldn’t marginalize my community.
Not knowing Spanish doesn’t make a Latinx person any less Latinx. Not knowing English doesn’t make an American any less American.
There is an assumption portrayed in political rhetoric today that implies otherwise. Presidential candidate Julian Castro spoke about the internalized oppression Latinx Americans face because of language barriers in the United States, which led him to grow up in an English-only household like me.
The root of oppression comes in part from language barriers. What we can do is instead of negatively singling out what makes us different, we can appreciate the range of our diversity.
American ideals should be based on inclusion and empathy. Never mind that the United States doesn’t even have an official language.
When we embrace the spectrum of our identity and linguistics, everyone feels included. Though I may not be able to communicate with some in my Latinx community, I know that what unites us surpasses language.