Forty-one million people in the United States speak Spanish fluently, and I am not one of them. This despite the fact that most people assume that I do. It makes sense. I write essays and plays and make films in which I declare how proud I am of my Dominican and Colombian heritages. I work just enough Spanish into these pieces to sell the idea that I am fluent. But in truth, I can order off Spanish menus and piecemeal my way through a conversation for a couple of minutes, but I can’t go deeper. As a proud, public-facing brown and Latino artist who obviously must speak Spanish, “just enough” has come to feel like not enough at all.
How can I be what I say I am if I can’t really speak Spanish?
So I started taking weekly lessons.
“¿Cómo te van estas clases?” my teacher asked me. How are these classes going?
“Honestamente, son difíciles.” Honestly, they’re difficult, I told her.
I don’t just mean linguistically. I mean spiritually and culturally. I mean learning a language is a challenge, yes, but learning a language you think you should already know is an emotional challenge that opens old wounds. It brings back memories of the other Latin kids in high school who called me “gringo,” and of the brown girls who dismissed me as not down or brown or Latin enough to date, and of my parents apologizing at family parties for their son who couldn’t speak Spanish. I often felt that by not speaking Spanish, I was a shame to my people and where I come from. That I let them down.
But I also have long wondered why my parents, who sent my older sister to the Dominican Republic for summers immersed in the language with our grandmother, never sent me there, never made it a priority for me to learn Spanish as well. If I don’t speak their mother tongue, isn’t that akin to their losing a part of themselves? Does that mean they are no longer proud of where they came from? I’ve learned from friends that I’m not alone in this. It’s common for an older sibling to get the old country cultural immersion and younger ones to be pushed to fit in to the new one. Perhaps for families like mine, the pursuit of upward mobility came to matter more than maintaining ties to the past.
Some people accused my Dominican father and my Colombian mother of abandoning their roots in an attempt to become something — or someone — else. But I know that my family, like so many others, decided that to survive in this country, they needed to be as American as they could be, if only to ease the pain their children felt because they were different. My parents adopted the ways and mannerisms of the white people who were signing their checks, and those checks allowed us to eat, to live, to maintain. My parents humbly embraced as much of that world as they could. But what my parents sacrificed, in my case, was passing their language on to me.
I learned plenty more from them, though, such as how to navigate this America in a body of color. That means that now, I’m the one who assimilates. But where they did it to get by, I do it in the hope of getting ahead. It means that I sometimes wear my naturally wavy hair combed flat, parted, and as straight as possible. Sometimes I code switch, drawing on a repertoire of gestures and expressions that signal I’m not a threat, that I belong. Sometimes it means I ignore the racism embedded in small talk: “You’re so lucky,” a white person might say, learning that I’m an actor. “It’s such a good time to be Latin.” I swallow the response that hits the back of my throat: It was a good time to be white for quite a long time.
With each Spanish lesson that passes, I realize the pressure, insecurity, and shame I carry with me into class. It’s been of some comfort to discover that in this, too, I’m not alone. The writer and “¡Hola Papi!” advice columnist John Paul Brammer writes, “I think one thing a lot of Latinx get caught up on when it comes to identity is that we’ve been conditioned to couple lived experience with ‘authenticity.’ There are a set number of things a ‘real Latinx’ must do: speak Spanish, look a certain way, have certain skills (cooking, dancing, balancing enormous fruit hats on our heads, etc.). To lack any of these would make you less authentic, and thus ‘less’ in general.”
On my good days, I know that I am not less. I have not failed my people, my culture, or myself by my inability to speak fluent Spanish. I regret the lost opportunities, though. My biggest regret is that I was never able to have a real conversation and a deeper relationship with my grandmother before she died. I never got to hear about her childhood in Colombia or be entranced by her stories, her recipes, or her wisdom. Friends tell me about how funny or cool their grandparents were, and I keep quiet, because I didn’t have the luxury of knowing my abuela that way.
My teacher says the best and only way to really learn is to practice and get comfortable with making mistakes. The mistakes, I’m good at. And I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have built relationships around the suggestion — the lie? — that I speak Spanish. If I tell the truth, will I lose those friendships? Do I have the right to make art that demands institutional change for people of color if I don’t embrace the language that so many of them speak and put in the hard work to learn it?
So as tough as it is to be the brown guy with the Latin heritage in the beginners’ Spanish class, I’ll keep going. Just enough Spanish isn’t cutting it anymore.
Christopher Rivas is an actor, a filmmaker, and the creator of “The Real James Bond Was Dominican!” Follow him on Instagram @christopher__rivas.