How Learning Spanish Is Helping Me Heal and Connect to My Ancestors
It’s been one of the most frequently asked questions of my life. “¿Hablas español?” I memorized the scripted answer to this question early in my youth. “Hablo un poquito.” As a Chicana born and raised in Texas and the first-generation daughter of a Mexican immigrant, the answer usually disappoints people. The smiles on their faces turn from friendly to instant judgment. “¿No hablas? ¿Por que no?” The truth is, my “poquito” is mostly curse words and house Spanglish — broken phrases and grammatical errors, combined with a pretty decent Mexican accent and sufficient pronunciation of menu items like “enchiladas verdes.” It was always enough to get me through life. Although my parents had spoken it around us, alongside my grandparents, tios, and tias, there was almost an unspoken understanding that the language was only for them — only for the adults. And although I always felt a closeted shame about my lack of speaking Spanish, it didn’t affect my life enough to create the desire to learn on my own. That is until 2016, when my whole world changed.
As a new mother, holding my baby son (who is half Eastern European Jewish and half Mexican American), I listened as newly elected President Donald Trump said disparaging things about our people. I viewed countless videos of “Karens” shouting epithets like “Go back to Mexico!” to my Indigenous brown brothers and sisters, who no doubt have more native heritage than any “Karen” could ever hope to brag about in church. And anger instantly started brewing inside me. With that anger came determination. I committed myself to reclaiming and learning Spanish. I never expected that the path to learning would be so healing for my heart and so wonderful for my mental well-being.
Dr. Manuel Zamarripa is the director and cofounder of the Institute of Chicana/o Psychology in Austin, TX. He said learning the language of our ancestors can be healing for a number of reasons. “Language is how you express your existence,” he said. “The degree to which we want to learn Spanish is the degree to which we want to feel an affinity for our people and our family.” This explains why since starting lessons online with Lingoda, I’ve cried tears of joy to myself after logging off. I’ve told friends that it has felt like finally being allowed in a room that I’ve been locked out of my whole life. And just like Zamarripa said, it has allowed me to feel closer to loved ones who’ve passed on, my living elders, my estranged father, and my young son (who is learning Spanish in school).
Although I know there’s no one right way to be Latinx, learning Spanish is a validating experience for me. Zamarripa said this is common. “For the majority of Latinx, the Spanish language is an ability that’s wrapped up with our identity.”
“For the majority of Latinx, the Spanish language is an ability that’s wrapped up with our identity.”
Given the history of Latinxs in America, it’s easy to see how and why our parents may have not thought it important (or advantageous) to make sure we spoke the language. Spanish-speaking children in the US were often subjected to corporal punishment if they spoke Spanish in school. Civil rights leader Cesar Chavez told one story of this type of racist indoctrination in his own life. He was made to wear a sign in school that said, “I speak Spanish. I am a clown.” Cultural erasure of Indigenous, African, and immigrant populations is a deeply rooted tradition in the United States. For this reason, Zamarripa said, we shouldn’t feel shame if we speak imperfect, broken, or no Spanish at all. It doesn’t make us any less Latinx. “The fact that we speak Spanish at all . . . it’s a form of resistance.”
But even this familiar language was not our people’s original form of expression. Most Latinx people are a blend of Indigenous and/or African people who met a violent historical intersection with Spanish colonizers. Spanish is the language of our people’s historic colonizers. Zamarripa said there’s a lot of healing that can come from realizing and accepting both parts of our history. As Latinx people, we are part colonized and part colonizer. Embracing that history and working to do better today (through learning, listening, and working for equity) is a way we can show up in the world in ways our ancestors didn’t.
As a Latinx, it can be difficult to trace your specific ancestral lineage. Slavery and genocide separated our forebears from their culture. Zamarripa said we’re living in a time where we have an opportunity to reclaim and rediscover that culture (if we choose to), and it just may heal us in the process. For him, that means rooting himself in Aztec traditions and integrating the use of Nahuatl with his family. For some, it can mean discovering or tracing African or Native American tribal ancestry to find a sense of rootedness through community, ritual, dress, and language. For me, it’s learning Spanish for my son, for the “Karens,” and for the little girl in me who always felt she wasn’t enough.
“In our path to reconnecting, there is no one right way to do it.”
Zamarripa said this “not-enoughness” is pervasive in our culture and is a tool of systemic oppression. When we perpetuate colorism, language gatekeeping, and an unattainable ideal of one right way to be Latinx, we further the harm set in motion by our colonizer ancestors. And in order to heal, we must embrace the complex path that we all walk as Latinx. As Dr. Zamarripa said, “In our path to reconnecting, there is no one right way to do it.” It’s up to you how (or if) you root, reclaim, and reconnect. But if you are like me and have spent your life feeling othered and never quite at home, you just may find that home on your journey to self-discovery. Just remember: ya somos suficientes. We are already enough.