I was on the freeway with friend, when we drove passed a billboard that advertised in Spanish. My friend, who was white, made a remark that it was “messed up” companies put up billboards in Spanish, saying “this is America, I guarantee they wouldn’t have a billboard in English in Mexico!”
After my brain recovered from trying to process that statement, we spent the remainder of our drive with me vehemently arguing how misinformed she sounded. To which she responded “Well you’re not from Mexico, and you barely speak Spanish, so I don’t understand why you’re even upset.”
That blunt statement made me stop in my tracks.
I realized that I had become so assimilated to the “American way of life” that to her I no longer even registered as Latino. In her mind, she could make a disparaging remark about Mexicans and, because I am not Mexican, I should not be offended.
My family is from Costa Rica, one of the five countries whose Independence Day falls on Sept. 15 which marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage month. I am first generation American, born in L.A. If I were to go to Costa Rica I would be in trouble as my Spanish speaking ability is elementary at best. Sad to say, I am one of a new minority: the American Latino.
Having been raised in the U.S. in an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood I related more to the American way of life. From a young age, I struggled between embracing my Latin roots and trying to fit in with white kids around me.
My mother, who was born in Costa Rica and moved with her family to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, was adamant about me learning Spanish, but I never thought it would benefit me in anyway.
My grandmother never learned to speak much English, so in order for me to even communicate with her I had to speak Spanish. It was then that I realized how important my heritage was. It wasn’t what we talked about that made me pay attention, but the fact that something as simple as learning a language can help reveal so much about my family history.
Hispanics have been searching for an authentic voice in American society for decades.
Latinos who embrace too much of their culture are often stigmatized as being ungrateful to be here, sometimes met with taunts to “go back to Mexico” or told “this is America, learn the language.”
With the new generations of American Latinos, like myself, our cultural identity is not being called into question, but has been repressed by a need to conform to white American values.
This self-realization is not to say I don’t appreciate my Costa Rican heritage and upbringing. I am as American as my billboard-loathing friend, but I am also proud of the contributions and sacrifices my family has made to become citizens of this country.
Hispanic and Latinos nationwide have helped shape this country into what it is today. We have served in the Armed forces, helped build skyscrapers. We are lawyers and doctors, business owners and entertainers. Whether we sit on the Supreme Court, or clean the Citrus campus, we do our job to best of our ability.
Although there has been tremendous growth and acceptance towards the roles of Latinos in American today, we still have a ways to go as far as making people aware of the significance and contribution that Hispanic heritage has made to the American landscape.
The importance of Hispanic Heritage Month is that it is not so much celebrating any one nationality, but rather bringing to light the value our Latino heritage brings to the American way of life.
Hispanic and Latino influences permeate American life and are felt throughout and that is a fact that young Americanized Latinos, like myself, need to recognize and celebrate.
While it is awkward for me at family functions to sit with a blank expression as my aunts and uncles talk to me in Spanish, I still enjoy learning from them. They are eager to share their stories about growing up as a Latino American in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during a turbulent climate of change for our country.
It is because of them and many others who immigrated here decades ago, that I don’t speak Spanish. That’s not an insult or a bad thing. Because of their struggle and sacrifice, I was able to assimilate and be accepted easier than they had. And now that I am older I am learning about my history through them as well through self-education, and I can appreciate where I came from.
Our histories are synonymous and at our core we cherish the same values: family, pride, and civic duty – because we come from Mexico, Costa Rica or any of the other various Latin countries around the globe does not mean we have no appreciation for where we call home now.
I am very proud of who I am and where I came from. I may not speak perfect Spanish, but cultural and linguistic fluency are very different things. Anyone can learn to speak a language. In my heart, I know who I am: American by birth, Latino by heritage.