How we define a Latinx: Language as a part of la cultura

Three times a week, I walk into my Intermediate Spanish class with the inability to roll my Rs and to understand when it’s okay to use the subjunctive. I always feel a bit ashamed, especially since I grew up with a mother who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and because I have always heard Spanish spoken around me – family members constantly flooded my house with their rapid Dominican Spanish. However, they were not teaching me Spanish. Instead, I was teaching them English, which they so desperately wanted to learn.

While I can understand Spanish very well (specifically Dominican Spanish, which I would argue is a skill in itself), I cannot speak it fluently. I can write well and speak if I have to, but I often end up feeling insecure when I do. Because of this, I often don’t feel Latino enough. I love my Dominican culture – the people, music, food and dancing. However, I have always associated language as being integral to the definition of a Latinx, and since I don’t completely have that, I feel a bit disconnected from the identity.

Oftentimes, older Latinx look down upon people who don’t know the language. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t understand why because, unknowingly, I perpetuate the same tradition. When a Latinx celebrity confirms that they are fluent in Spanish, I instantly feel that they are more authentic in some ridiculous, nonsensical way. I think this idea comes from there being an authenticity that is attached to Latinx who can speak the language in the United States. People, like me, fail to take into account the reasons why someone may not know the language, such as their parents’ fear of an accent for their child, or limited time around their family.

Strangely enough, my inability to speak Spanish fluently was more pronounced at my high school where the student body was 90 percent white. I was often told I was not Latino enough by white kids. Their idea of what it means to be a Latinx was so surface level that they defined Latinidad by a language. This led to years of insecurity with my identity even though I was and am so proud of my Dominican culture.

Upon arriving here at the College and meeting people from Vista as well as other fellow Dominicans, I realized that the wall I put up between my Latino identity and myself was largely self-imposed and imposed by others outside the culture. The Latinx community is so incredibly diverse and to define the community as people that are connected by a single language is reductive. Though the ability to meet others who speak the same language as you in the United States is a beautiful thing, it is not the defining aspect. Now that I’m surrounded by more Latinx, and that I am a part of the Vista and Students of Caribbean Ancestry communities here on campus, I feel more certain of my identity than ever before.

I love my mangú, bachata and Afro-Latino identity. Test me on any Romeo Santos song and I got you! The Latinx who don’t embrace their cultures like I do are still Latinx. With shows like “Jane The Virgin” and “One Day at a Time”, which showcase Latinx who do not speak Spanish fluently, members of the Latinx community are opening up their arms and accepting non-Spanish speakers as their own.

There is no clear definition of what it means to be a Latinx, so we need to open our community to those who feel less connected and embrace them. Everyone has a different connection to this culture and we should work to have our fellow Latinx discover and embrace that connection, whether they speak the language or not.

Michael Crisci ’21 is from Bayville, N.Y. He lives in Sage Hall.