About 18.2 percent of New Yorkers can speak Spanish. That includes everyone from Colombians, Dominicans, El Salvadorians, Mexicans and more, but most infamously, the “Nuyoricans” — Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Puerto Rico has two official languages: Spanish and English. Iremis Lorenzo, a freshman majoring in economics, is one of many to notice that many Puerto Ricans are infamous for “either speaking Spanish weirdly, mispronouncing words or not speak it at all.” But they’re all still Puerto Rican, right? I had to ask myself this question growing up while I heard Spanish being spoken at home, yet engaged with it only in English terms and was presented only with English concepts outside my home. I knew Spanish, but I didn’t know Spanish like my sisters. I spoke Spanish in my high school Spanish classes as a prodigy, yet when I spoke it to my family, they would chuckle at my English accent.
I went to visit family members who only spoke Spanish and continuously felt insecure about my skills. Is there a checklist to what it means to be Hispanic? Celine Delarosa, a freshman double-majoring in Italian and human development, is a fluent Spanish-speaking person and one of many who have witnessed the divide between non-Spanish-speaking Hispanics and Spanish-speaking Hispanics.
“There is not a list that you have to check off to be Hispanic,” Delarosa said. “It is not a black-and-white thing. Myself, as a vegan, people have told me you are not Dominican because you’re a vegan … That’s not how it works. There’s not one specific way you gotta be.”
Lorenzo also acknowledged this divide.
“I know that growing up, all the kids that did not speak Spanish, their ass was cut,” Lorenzo said. “It happens unintentionally because you see that one not Spanish-speaking person in a friend group that is alienated … unnoticed.”
Lorenzo’s discussion of how this natural barrier occurs is an imperative notion that must be looked upon. Language is a fundamental part of how we speak to each other, how we bond, and it is not surprising that it binds many factions, especially cultural ones, together. But could some Hispanic people’s inability to speak Spanish create more divides within our broader society? One student, who wished to remain anonymous, touched upon that barrier.
“You can’t speak up in the same way like someone that knows the language … To have that sincere, genuine connection to your culture, you need to know the language of your culture,” the anonymous student said. “We have seen English-only movements as an attempt to make an assimilation to forget your culture. I feel like if you don’t know your language, you are falling into the trap of assimilation.”
This idea of assimilation comes comes at a time where we are witnessing the very same attacks on language. For example, Arizona used to require under federal law that voting materials be translated into six Native American languages, but after 2015, only Apache and Navajo were required. This leaves Native Americans who only speak the other four languages at a loss unless they learn another language. It comes at a time where one can be harassed by English-only radicals for speaking their native languages in the United States. The unity that language serves cannot be downplayed because it is integral to the sustainability of a culture and leads to bonding. But, as noted by Jailine Grullon, a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law, language isn’t everything.
“The language is a big part of the culture but it is not the only thing,” Grullon said. “If you can enjoy different aspects of tradition and culture … it does not make you less Hispanic.”
Language divides occur within and outside culture, but it must be remembered that culture, although bound with language, is not restricted to only existing within the boundaries that language seems to constrict. It is how we fashion and define culture that creates those restrictions.