For Years I Refused To Speak Spanish Because Of How It Patronized My Disability

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Like many first-generation Latinx kids in the United States, I grew up in a bilingual home. My mother and father spoke primarily English to my sisters and me while speaking Spanish whenever we were in New York visiting our Abuelos. Wela (my mother’s mom) also lived with us and she only spoke Spanish. My sisters had always been better at expressing themselves in Spanish than me, mainly because I had to focus on making sure my English was perfect. Having been born with Spina Bifida, I learned at a young age how to be the go-between for my doctors at the hospital who didn’t speak my family’s native tongue. It was imperative that I be able to communicate with my doctors well enough to make sure my parents also understood them in case something became lost in translation.

Growing up in a very English speaking environment meant that while my English was getting stronger, my Spanish suffered a bit and I began to have negative feelings about it.

CREDIT: Photo: Andrea Lausell

I felt ashamed my Spanish was beginning to be difficult for me to use even though I understood it just fine. As I grew up and explored my Disabled identity in English when I needed to explain who I was to my family, peers, and strangers, I realized I couldn’t explain who I was in Spanish. Eventually, I began to feel as if the Spanish language didn’t actually want people to know who I was as a Disabled Latina.

For the English speaking Disabled community, we’ve managed to take back the word“disabled” and to embrace it.

We welcome it as an identity and as a way to explain that we have a disability that requires accessibility. The word “disabled” isn’t a bad word for us, it’s a word filled with a rich history and supportive community. And in the community, we’ve developed different ways to identify ourselves either as a “disabled person” or a “person with a disability”. For myself personally, I don’t like using I’m a “person with a disability”, I prefer identity first language. But regardless of how a disabled person wants to identify, the bottom line is that our disability or disabilities end up being a big part of who we are. It’s a big part of who I am, no matter what I do in life and how I succeed.

In English it’s always been easy to explain who I am, but Spanish is another story. When I was a child, I noticed that whenever my parents and I talked about my disability we only did it in English. When English was used to talk about my Spina Bifida, it was always very medical but also caring. There was a softness and reassurance in my parents’ voices as they helped guide me in understanding and accepting who I was as a disabled person. In Spanis,h though my disability was rarely brought up and if we needed to explain something to family members who only spoke Spanish, it was explained as simply “bad back problems”. But there never was anything positive in the tone when it was “explained”. It always came with some pity followed by my family saying “ay bendito” to me.

I always knew there had to be words in Spanish that could explain my disability.

CREDIT: Photo: Andrea Lausell

Of course, you have the words for disabled like “discapacitado”, “incapacitado”, and “discapaz”. But I noticed a huge difference when using those words in Spanish verses saying “Disabled” in English. The difference was the connotation of “discapacitado” having the meaning of “malo” which is the direct opposite of the reclaimed word “disabled” in English. I think the reasoning as to why I don’t know much about disability related language in Spanish and probably why my family avoided saying it had to do with my parents not knowing the right word to say that reflected how they felt when they spoke to me in English. Therefore they had no way to teach me how to talk about myself fully in Spanish. That’s not their fault though, I was the first disabled person (that we know of) to be born in our family. They never needed to use disability language before me. When you also look at our Latinx culture and the history of how disability is viewed, it’s important to note that it’s engraved in our culture to look at disability as something to be pitied. The disabled become “el pobre” or “pobrecitas.” This belief is supported by the Latinx communities deeply rooted Catholic philosophies and influences, from the classic ableist stories of the Deaf and blind being “healed”. We’ve convinced ourselves as a community to see disabled people as those who are living sad lives because they’re disabled while also using them as a sort of inspiration porn: a reminder to “live your life to the fullest because after all, it could be worse, you could be disabled”. The reality, however, is that when disabled people do actually experience these “miserable lives” it’s because abled people have a created a world that is inaccessible to us.

For a good amount of my adolescent years, I began to reject Spanish because of how it subconsciously began to groom me into feeling as if my disability was something to feel ashamed about.

Ultimately, after a while, I refused to speak it unless I was talking to my Abuelos. Speaking the language ultimately began to make me feel unhappy because it felt like a language that could only be used as long as I didn’t talk about one of the biggest parts of me. As time has gone on, and I’ve become content in my identity as a Disabled Latina, I don’t entirely have negative feelings about speaking about my disability in Spanish. I’ve realized it’s not impossible to explain my Disabled identity especially as the Disabled Latin community slowly but surely manages to change the narrative of how the Latinx community views us by altering the meaning of very ableist words in Spanish. As long as I keep speaking Spanish to those around me, I feel confident I can help to make this change. Now, when I’m met with “ay benditos” as a response to someone finding out that I’m disabled, I’ll show them with my words that being “discapaz” is amazing and one of the best things about me.


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