The Latino Complex: What Defines Our Culture?
Growing up in a Latino household, I was taught both English and Spanish, and I was fluent in both. My parents would use English and Spanish in the same sentence, and I developed an ear for thick accents and mixed verbiage. When I entered my teen years, however, I lost that connection to my family. I learned French in middle school and lost interest and fluency in speaking Spanish. I lost that connection to my family, but that does not make me any less Latin. I hear it from my parents all the time: “You should learn Spanish so you can talk to your grandma;” “You should learn Spanish; it’s part of your culture.” I feel distanced from them, and I feel like I’m valued less as a member of my family. While not speaking Spanish does create a barrier between me and my family, it does not diminish my connection to my heritage or my experience as a hispanic woman. Heritage is not something that you can lose: you’re born with it, and I was born a Latina.
I feel guilty for letting go of something that brings me closer to my family, but my understanding of what it means to be a Latina is still valid. Having this broken link is like being a wallflower at a party. I was invited to the party, so I’m present and involved, but not entirely comfortable socializing. There’s something separating me from the rest of the party, and it’s language. The pillars of Latin culture are rooted in the following: family, community, and tradition. My background with these outweighs the language barrier.
Of these, family is number one, every Latin will tell you that. Family teaches you everything you know: if not your mom or dad, then your aunt, or third cousin, or great uncle will gladly step in to instill any missing knowledge, with added Latin flair. Family members are always around to give you advice, even when you don’t want it; ESPECIALLY when you don’t want it. These are the people that invited me to the party, the people that make me feel comfortable and welcomed. I grew up surrounded by the warmth and comfort unique to Latin families. Family means being involved and being available to each other. In any culture, family is important, but Latino families not only include immediate family members, but they invite friends and neighbors to create an extended, invaluable support system. I am lucky enough to be apart of such a family. I inherited the tenderness, compassion, and loving nature that came from being brought up where these traits are valued.
When I think of the importance of the Latin community, I think of a congregation of people who share history and core values. A Latin community can be a community of Mexicans, a community of Hondurans or Puerto Ricans, or a community of all these people. I cannot tell you how excited Latinos are to meet other Latinos, no matter where they’re from. When I moved into my dorm, I connected with my roommate almost immediately. We are both Latin women; her family is Mexican while my family is mixed Honduran and Puerto Rican. Regardless, we bond over gossip, television, food, and experiences from our youth. The one thing I can’t relate to her with is Spanish, because she speaks it fluently with her family. Despite this, we identify in our Latin heritage and see each other as supportive, close friends. She is part of my community, and I connect with her beyond our national heritages. Latinos share this connection and bond with each other and use it to build welcoming and exciting communities wherever they are.
Traditions are a central concept in Latin culture. They can be massive like religion, or personal, like Sunday barbeques; the point is, tradition is experienced by every Latin person. We inherit tradition from our family and community, and it is often rooted in religious and social gatherings. I’ve experience older, larger traditions: baptism, going to church with my family, taking communion. I’ve also experienced newer, smaller traditions: learning to cook Sopa de Olla, bonding with tispy aunts and uncles over dinner, yearly christmas parties. Then there are traditions that manage to be both old and new. My Quinceanera, for example, tied the religious importance of old Latin values with the exciting and lax standards of modern Latin-American culture. A compromise between old and new; where a church service proclaiming me “the salt of the earth” was followed by morally questionable dance moves and elaborately decorated cupcakes. These traditions make me a Latina. The old ones have been passed down over generations, others that are fairly new have been adopted to keep us close together as times change.
Another pillar, which most Latinos will likely deny, is pride. Pride is at the core of the Latin identity. Being Latin includes being proud of who you are, and more importantly, where you come from. I could not be more proud of my mother, a Puerto Rican entrepreneur who has taught me about perseverance and determination in the face of adversity. I could not be more proud of my father, a Honduran immigrant who came to the United States to get an education, chase a career opportunity he didn’t have back home, and raised me to value discipline and loyalty. I could not be more proud of myself for accepting my heritage and embracing what it means to be Latina despite losing my Spanish tongue. I understand the value of language and how it can bring me closer to my culture, and losing it adds distance between myself and my family, community, and our traditions. However, I shouldn’t have to defend my Latin identity because I’m missing it. I may be dancing offbeat at this party, but I’m dancing to a Latin rhythm.