Pair of hands that are holding a piece of paper that says hablas espanol?

Knowing Spanish Isn’t a Requirement for Claiming Your Latinidad

Photo: nito100 / Art: Stephany Torres

The discourse around Spanish is always louder during Our Heritage Month, and this year has been no exception. From Miss Dominican Republic being questioned for not speaking Spanish fluently, to viral social media posts stating that “if you don’t speak the language of your people you are not an authentic member of that culture.” Basically, the narrative that conflates a language with an identity is as alive as ever.

It’s also as wrong as ever.

The reasons why are numerous, but perhaps the most important one is the simple fact that Spanish isn’t actually our language. It isn’t even the only language spoken in Latin America – and yet this narrative erases Brazilians as if they were not also part of our communities. Instead, Spanish is the language of our colonizers, and it holds no actual cultural relevance to who we are as a group, much less the things that bind us together.

What is Latinidad? The answers are numerous, and it is fair to say there are many ways to understand the term. At its core, though, it is a series of shared attributes, not a single essential trait. There is not one thing that makes you Latine, just as there is no one thing that excludes you from identifying as such.

Of course, the term Latinidad is too broad, as it excludes race and the realities of Latin American countries.

Latin America and Latine people in the US are not a monolith, and yet the constant framing of certain requirements to what that Latinidad means is often used in an attempt to homogenize us. “This is what Latine looks like,” or “This is what Latine sounds like,” are fallacies, because Latine people are diverse racially, culturally, and even linguistically. And the knowledge of a language or lack thereof doesn’t make anyone more or less part of our communities. Yet we are constantly made to feel like it does. 

A new study from the Pew Research Center showed that 54% of U.S. Latines who don’t speak Spanish have been shamed for it. The experience is, ironically, much more common for younger Latines than older Latines. However, the study also found that more than ¾ of Latines say it’s not necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latine. 

This understanding isn’t really reflected in reality. Just last year, Oscar winner Ariana DeBose opened up about her insecurities regarding the language in a Vanity Fair video, saying “I do not speak Spanish. I’m not fluent. And I thought for the longest time that that made me less of what I was,” adding that she felt that “maybe I shouldn’t talk about my background because perhaps I didn’t represent the community well enough.”

But a community is not a language. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. And during Our Heritage Month, it’s also important to remember that a community doesn’t require you to sound, look, or be like everyone else. The space we occupy as Latines isn’t defined by anyone other than ourselves. 

Our communities are made up of so much more than a shared language that isn’t even common to all of us. And the narrative that Spanish is essential, pushed by an establishment that would like to see us all fit into a box, shouldn’t be ours to own. 

I speak fluent Spanish. That doesn’t make me any more Latine than the men, women, or people who were brought up with the same cultural markers I was, and that don’t speak the language. And it’s about time our communities truly understood that knowing Spanish is not a requirement for being Latine or claiming your Latinidad. Simple as that.