“Please step aside sir, I don’t believe you. I thought you were Hispanic, but after hearing your Spanish I don’t believe you are who you say to be, Mr. Arenas.”
This summer, the guards at the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport thought that I was an imposter — simply because of my Spanish. An airport officer even tried to convince me that I was trying to smuggle something past airport security. It wasn’t the first time someone had questioned my last name after hearing my Spanish, but this time was different. I had spent the past eight weeks living in Madrid completing a Spanish immersion course, hoping to improve my speaking skills. But on my way home, I was once again reminded that to some people who I am does not match who I should be or how I appear on paper.
I did not grow up speaking Spanish at home. I had taken Spanish classes since elementary school, but never found an interest in learning the language. Perhaps this was because I felt I had nothing in common with my teachers, of which almost all were non-Hispanic. Often times in class discussions I felt as if my story was incorrect because it did not mesh with the PowerPoints displayed on the whiteboard. I felt as if Spanish was supposed to be reserved for people who looked different from me, people other than my own family. My identity as a descendant of Mexican-American culture was shrouded in a back and forth between Caucasian and Spanish teachers and family histories bestowed to me through helping my grandmother cook enchiladas and sopaipillas.
My family’s transition through American society has seen a rapid transformation over the past two generations. My father and his siblings were given American names because at the time, my grandparents believed it would get them “farther” in life. The truth is that it did get my father and his siblings much farther than what many would think is possible for the time. Growing up in a small town in southern Ohio I lived what was likely a pipe dream to my grandparents. In my home growing up I had basic necessities such as running water and electricity. I had a fridge with food in it to come home to everyday after school for a snack. But I have also been privileged with more luxurious freedoms like family vacations and weekend shopping trips.
My ancestors did not have these freedoms. They struggled against poverty in hopes of more freedom, for people like me to live a life with more choices and less fear. They organized alongside other Hispanic citizens in the United States, fighting for basic rights during the Chicano movement of the 1960s. My ancestors’ self determination helped to make my current lifestyle possible, even though at the time there were thousands of Americans who did not want for them to become part of a higher society, or anything more than people who lived in adobe homes along the border.
I’d like to think that my family’s better standard of living was possible without the rejection of our first language and culture, but to say that would be a lie. The “American Dream” that my family achieved for my generation came with a heavy cost. Some call it “assimilation.” But assimilation implies that it was voluntary, and I’m not so sure it was. Sacrifices were made to fit in. Spanish stopped being spoken. My father pronounces our last name differently so it can be written in English correctly. Family members will say that these habits were the only way “out” or “up.” According to Pew Research, this side-effect of assimilation appears to be common in other Spanish-speaking families too, as those with Spanish-speaking ancestry have stopped speaking the language in the U.S.
During the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to improve my Spanish and recover what was involuntarily lost. Through this I have come to understand my family’s story — my own story — and the types of people that my ancestors were. I’ve come to realize that the ability to speak with my grandmother and other family members in their native language reveals identities that previously were unknown to me. I’ve been able to meet two new family members that I didn’t know even existed. Before becoming comfortable with Spanish, I neglected the power that it holds in my family. It contains the stories and memories of my ancestors. It contains a truth that I am still working to understand fully. A truth that can’t be explained on a whiteboard.
We should not neglect the power that our own family histories hold. My journey through what some may call my “latinidad” has made me realize my responsibility as a gatekeeper of history — a family history that could easily be forgotten and shrouded under the pan-ethnic label of “Hispanic” or “Latino” in classrooms across the United States. These labels used out of convenience aren’t fair to my ancestors, and I am working to define a more truthful identity when people ask where my family is from and the types of people that they were.
As “Hispanics” or “Latinx” we should strive to characterize ourselves as something more than a label. We should be mindful of how we name ourselves, regardless of where we come from, regardless of ethnicity. Because if not, the histories of our own families — our own people — will be rewritten for us down the line. Or worse, it will be as if they never even existed.
George A. Arenas ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.