Too Latino or Not Latino Enough?

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By David Morse (New American Dimensions)

Being Mexican American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly.

That’s the character of Abraham Quintanilla, played by Edward James Olmos, in the film “Selena.”

Fitting in with American culture is one thing. But the pressure to stay a true Latino — speaking fluent Spanish often being the main criteria — has seemingly created a rift among Latinos in America. This rift, lately, has manifested itself in the idea of not being Latino enough. It’s something actress Gina Rodriguez of TV’s “Jane The Virgin,” experienced recently.

Rodriguez shared her People En Español cover on Instagram last month that she captioned in English and Spanish. Some of her nearly half-million followers criticized her appearance and made fun of her Spanish translation.

But what shocked Rodriguez was her followers who slammed her appearance, her Spanish-speaking skills and more. She told Fox News Latino later that her fans reacted negatively to the way her toes curled, to what she was wearing, to the way she typed in Spanish  and that the negative comments were “deeper rooted than just what I look like. It was an interracial Latino racism that was eye opening.”

Rodriguez was born in Chicago her parents are Puerto Rican, and she is not fluent in Spanish. She said she was trying to connect to her Latino fans.

Well, no good online deed goes unpunished, of course, and there’s even researchshowing that the comment sections of almost every web site is dominated by professional haters and trolls.

As far as the not-Latino-enough conundrum, I’ve seen it personally, outside of the poisonous comment sections. It’s not just famous people who are getting attitude from both directions.

Let’s face it. There is an assumption, at least among many Latin American immigrants – and certainly folks in Latin America – that Hispanics should speak Spanish, and speak it fluently.

There’s the one story I must have heard a hundred times living in Mexico. Such-and-such person goes to the United States, speaks Spanish to someone “obviously” Mexican, only to have the person reply in English. The conclusion: “Pobrecito.” Ashamed of his roots.

Mexicans will say, “Con el nopal en la frente” ((“with a nopal (cactus) on the forehead”)), as if someone with indigenous roots should speak Spanish. Puerto Ricans will ask “Y tu abuela, dónde está?” (“And your grandmother, where is she?”), a reminder that black blood runs through the veins of so many Puerto Rican families.

There’s no question that speaking Spanish is high on the list of priorities for Latinos living in the United States – according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 95 percent of Latinos say it is important that future generations of Hispanics speak Spanish.

But that’s easier said than done. Our research shows that a majority of first generation Hispanic parents in the U.S. speak mostly or all Spanish to their kids. But getting the kids to answer in Spanish is sometimes like pulling teeth. And, says Pew, by the following generation, English is clearly dominant.

The label “not Latino enough” isn’t just about language either. This morning, I saw a “share” on Facebook by a friend of mine from Mexico City. It featured a photo of a seemingly Mexican-American couple sporting “Donald Trump for President” t-shirts. The sardonic caption: “They want to be Gringos: With that face of pre-Hispanic workmanship.” And there have been frequent references to Marco Rubio as a “so-called Latino.”

In the fantastic book, “Replenished Ethnicity,” Tomas Jimenez underscores the dynamics that lead immigrants and non-immigrants to have rigid views on what it means to be Mexican American:

Mexican Americans negotiate two sets of boundaries that immigrants make salient. The first are “intergroup boundaries,” which are those between Mexican Americans and non-Mexicans. Mexican immigrants are frequent targets of nativism from non-Mexicans, who voice strong opposition to the social and economic changes resulting from Mexican newcomers …

Mexican Americans also encounter “intragroup boundaries” that divide them from their immigrant coethnics, further locking them in an in-between status. Immigrants define what it means to be a “real” person of Mexican descent, and respondents described facing high expectations about their ethnic authenticity from Mexican immigrants, second-generation Mexican Americans and even non-Mexicans.

One encouraging sign I’m seeing I’ll call the Trump Effect, but it started long before the Donald starting calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, (though he’s sure some of them are good people). It’s stemmed from what many scholars have called the “criminalization” of undocumented migrants, and by extension, Latinos in general. The result has been an increase in cohesiveness among Latinos, even those who had become disconnected from their roots.

Trump isn’t content to just bash immigrants. He recently told a conservative news outlet that GOP candidate Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish and whose wife is from Mexico, should set an example by not speaking Spanish while on the campaign trail.

Our research shows that all this anti-immigrant rumpus has led to a resurgence in Latino pride among many second, third, and even fourth generation Latinos, a sense of group cohesiveness, and as the Pew data show, a determination to pass Spanish on to the kids – even when the parents don’t speak Spanish fluently.

That marks a significant change from immigrants prior. My great-grandparents spoke Yiddish, but it was hardly something they aspired to pass on to their kids, let alone grandkids. It was the language of the Eastern European ghettos, not something to be proud of.

By contrast, there’s a saying attributed to Charles V: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” There’s a reverence for Spanish among Hispanics you don’t often find among ethnic groups.

If you’re Latino and born in the United States, you might be more adept at speaking English. Like Rodriguez, your Spanish might be bad. But Spanish is also the language of your parents, of your grandparents. It’s part of who you are. There’s something sacred about it.

In his research with latter-generation Latinos, Jimenez argues that there’s something else, besides the Trump effect, that’s leading to a reclamation of Spanish identity. The arrival of millions of immigrants from Latin America in the past three decades has led to a blossoming of Hispanic culture in the U.S. He writes, “Replenishment provides the means by which Mexican Americans come to feel more positively attached to their ethnic roots.” The pressure to assimilate of earlier years is gone. Jimenez quotes Rolando Fernández, a forty-eight year old physician:

I would probably be “Roland” Fernández. Probably my name wouldn’t be spelled with a Z. I’d speak no Spanish. I probably wouldn’t make tamales at Christmas, and a lot of my cultural sensitivity and awareness is a direct result of the reality of the fact that I’m surrounded by culture. I’m surrounded by a culture that I understand, that I appreciate, that I love. And it continues to feed me. It’s a source of nourishment. So if I had not become more acculturated by the presence of large numbers of immigrants here, it would have been completely opposite. I would be totally acculturated into mainstream culture. But now the mainstream happens to be predominantly Mexicano.

It’s impossible to accurately predict what the future holds for the Spanish language in the U.S. But each time a presidential candidate – currently Donald Trump, but he won’t be the last one – bashes another candidate for speaking Spanish in America, it may just have unintended consequences. It may just ensure that the Spanish language and Latino culture, instead of being marginalized, will become ever more firmly entrenched in the American experience.

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Categories: NGL News