The worst gatekeeping sometimes comes from inside our very own communities. A very good example of that is the backlash Jenna Ortega received after a video of her trying to speak Spanish during an interview went viral and hit over 10 million views on TikTok. In the video, Ortega is prompted to invite people to watch Netflix’s Wednesday in Spanish (or Merlina, as she’s known in most Latin American countries), and struggles to get the words right. This resulted in many fans blatantly expressing that Ortega shouldn’t even be considered Latina if she can’t speak Spanish.
Comments got so out of hand that they were turned off on the viral video. But that didn’t stop these gatekeepers from coming for Ortega in other ways.
Camila Cabello received tons of comments when she supported Ortega by saying, “I love seeing a Latina on screen..” when referring to Ortega on Wednesday. Many claimed Ortega wasn’t Latina because she wasn’t fluent in Spanish as if her speaking Spanish is the end all, be all for who is or isn’t Latine. And they are ignoring that Ortega explained that she experienced the very same thing that many of us in our communities have gone through due to our parents wanting to push Spanish to the backburner because they believed that if we assimilated and didn’t stand out, we would become one of “them” or “accepted” within our new community.
Sadly, speaking Spanish being the “determining” factor on who is and isn’t Latine, isn’t new, particularly in Latin America. But it’s also kind of shocking how these gatekeepers make such a blatant assertion based on a language that we inherited from those who conquered us, pillaged our lands, and destroyed our traditions. In reality, cultural commonalities go way beyond a language that isn’t native to any Latin American community. And the insistence on gatekeeping Latinidad through language misses the nuances of those who were forced to assimilate to survive, just like our communities did when we first learned Spanish.
A problem starts forming when those who speak a borrowed language like Spanish, use it as part of their identity to exclude instead of bringing together. Case in point, all the comments under Cabello’s tweet saying that Ortega isn’t Latina enough because she doesn’t speak the language. It’s impossible to separate the language from some people’s perception of Latinidad – but that doesn’t mean the language should be used to gatekeep, or that judging someone for not speaking it is any better than discriminating against someone for doing so.
But the issue is even more complex than judging Ortega for her lack of Spanish fluency.
Anya Taylor-Joy, for example, has also received backlash for not being Latina enough, despite her Spanish fluency. In her case, fans object to her not “looking” like a Latina. Except there isn’t one way to look Latine or just one language that determines our Latinidad. (Can’t forget Brazil and Portuguese.) And the idea that these arbitrary markers “define our identity” – an idea that comes from an outside perception of what being Latine is – isn’t just misguided, it’s severely restricting. And it’s ironic considering Latin Americans have fought very hard to be seen for all they are, instead of being treated like a monolith.
Ortega’s identity isn’t defined by a language she isn’t fluent in because her family, like many immigrants, stopped speaking it so they wouldn’t stand out. Taylor-Joy is Latine. Her identity isn’t defined by a “look” people outside of our communities have determined as Latine. Because being Latine isn’t one language, one look, or even inherently tied to one location. It’s Sofia Vergara and Camila Mendes, yes, but it’s also Tenoch Huerta, Gina Torres, and Bruno Mars. And it’s also those who haven’t been back to Latin America in ages or never even visited because of the life their immigrant parents built for themselves and for their families.
Ultimately, Jenna Ortega is Latina because we are more than someone else’s idea of us – and we, in fact, can be everything, all at once. Period.