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“How come you never speak Spanish?” Usually, I only tell people half the story: My parents just never taught me. Usually, I hide the fact that I’ve been slowly learning Spanish on my own time, too embarrassed about my poor Spanish to actually practice it. But nobody wants to hear that — they’d rather tell me I’m agringado or a “no sabo kid” or “not a real Mexican.”
As far as I could tell, I was “a real Mexican” when I had to explain that I didn’t “get in because of my last name” ten minutes after receiving my Harvard acceptance. As far as I could tell, I was “a real Mexican” when I was unable to shake the anxiety of Uvalde in the crowd at Carnaval in San Francisco last May. And as far as I could tell, I was “a real Mexican” when I felt relieved to learn that my dad had been too sick to go to the Gilroy Garlic Festival as he had planned. After all, the racist mass shooter would have targeted someone who looked like him.
The truth is, I’m not alone — many Latines find that their language skills place them in a liminal space where they are “not quite Latine enough” for their own community, yet just Latine enough to be on the receiving end of racial hostility. However, this categorization overlooks the fact that countless Latines like me don’t speak Spanish for the most Latine reason possible: forced assimilation. The idea of conflating Latinidad with language is hardly a new one: The term Hispanic as understood today was coined by the United States Census Bureau; around the same time, the 1976 Public Law 94-311 defined this population for census data collection as those who “identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America, and other Spanish-speaking countries.”
No matter how prevalent it may become, “Hispanic” will always be a conceptually bankrupt term to me. Because “Hispanic” attempts to group people together solely based on the use of the Spanish language, it excludes people from Brazil, Haiti, and Belize, while including those from the country responsible for the colonization of most of Latin America: Spain. Clearly, this is a problem — it implies that there is no difference in the privileges of Spanish people and the people belonging to the countries Spain oppressed and stole from for centuries.
This is hardly a necessary evil; other definitions of Latinidad find unity in a combination of cultural identity, national origin in South and Central America or the Caribbean, colonial legacies, and lived experience against the backdrop of American society. In doing so, we can avoid lazily grouping the colonizer and the colonized together on the basis of a language Spaniards forced on Native Americans.
Even still, language is what connects us to our music, to our classmates, and even to our own families. It’s not hard to understand how Latines that were never taught to speak the language that defines their community (be it Spanish, Haitian Creole, or Quechua) might develop a cultural disconnect within their own communities, or even a sense of inadequacy. However, this is no excuse for portraying “no sabo kids” as “not Latine” — the reality is, Latines aren’t choosing to leave their native language behind. No, Latine languages aren’t being lost because their speakers are “lazy” or “want to be white.” Rather, we lose our languages when our speakers are criminalized for speaking their native language in the fundamentally Latine experience of forced assimilation.
While we might not want to define the Latine experience around the loss of language, the same could be said about our colonial history or labor exploitation — unfortunately, what it means to be Latine cannot so easily be disentangled from our community’s generational trauma. Much like our colonial history under European and North American forces, the United States government bears responsibility for much of this trauma: The erasure of the Spanish language can be traced back to a long history of forced assimilation, or “Americanization'' of Latines, exemplified by school segregation in Texas and California.
By 1931, 80 percent of school districts in Texas and California officially segregated Mexican children, sending them to schools deliberately designed to assimilate and exploit their students, training them for industrial, agricultural, and housekeeping work while neglecting to teach them basic reading and writing. Students at one such school in Texas even reported being beaten should they dare speak Spanish.
Despite this form of segregation being struck down in Mendez v. Westminster, the death of Mexican American schools left a loophole for future segregation: linguistic segregation. As a result, in Arizona today, the de facto segregation of Spanish-speaking students is enforced, all while students are only allowed to be taught in English.
With 70 percent of the United States under the impression that it is very important to speak English to be “truly American,” it’s clear that this forced assimilation isn’t going to end anytime soon — suggesting continued massive impacts on Latines. When so much of the country sees speaking Spanish as “un-American” and random Latines are yelled at for using their native language, it should come as no surprise that many parents decide not to teach their children to speak Spanish. The resulting “no sabo kids” certainly deserve Latinidad; we lost our language as a result of forced assimilation — a key part of the Latine experience.
Even still, many “no sabo kids” find hope in language reclamation. Notably, Selena and Julián Castro have chosen this path themselves, effectively acknowledging that, while much is lost with our language, much can be regained by learning that same language, even decades into your life. While the harm of forced assimilation cannot be overlooked or forgotten, language reclamation represents a path forward. It offers us a place to call home and the opportunity to replace a missed connection with a new relationship.
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.
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