Reclaiming Mi Cultura

credit: Photo of Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith's tía abuela provided by Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith

In 2018, speaking Spanish in America has consequences. This week, two American women were detained by a border patrol agent in Montana for simply having a conversation at a gas station. Last week, attorney Aaron Schlossberg of New York went on a tirade against workers of a deli. His complaint was the employees’ use of the Spanish language. It’s no surprise that some white Americans are feeling more entitled to expressing their ignorance and scorn towards Latinx. President Trump, himself, referred to immigrants illegally in the US as “animals, not people” just last week. The current administration uses fear as a tactic to legislate and promote ideas that are overtly racist and xenophobic. We’ve been privy to this agenda since Trump proclaimed that Mexico wasn’t “sending their best.” As an American who supports our founding principle that all are created equal, I’m outraged. As a Chicana, I’m called to question what Latinx Americans like myself have lost in generations prior as a result of such ignorance and contempt and what we stand to further lose if this administration has its way.

I am the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and a Mexican American who has struggled to learn our family’s native tongue.

I grew up in a majority white middle-class neighborhood and never quite “sounded” the part to many either. Growing up, our elders spoke Spanish to each other when they wanted us to not understand what they were saying. I picked up phrases, the curse words, and some cultura via Los Lobos, Cheech Marin, and Linda Ronstadt. But for the most part, my Spanish has been something that I’ve struggled to learn fluently.

I’m a product of years of assimilation, brought on by fear of oppression and a need to survive. My grandparents were Protestants who spoke Spanish but were experts of the code switch. As Texans in the early 20th century, their mission as Chicanos was to blend in. And to this aim— the aim for survival, for prosperity, for better lives for their offspring— my ancestors “Americanized” themselves. They kept the language at home. They kept the food close to their hearts. Some changed their names. They aimed for whiteness because it was the accepted base line for normalcy. And with the path they carved for future generations, the culture was buried within us.

Now that we are living in a retro-racist society, one that rallies to “Make America Great Again” (a call to arms for all who embrace white supremacy) it’s time for “Americanized” Latinx like myself to find and embrace the ever-present and leftover seeds of our cultura.

If white supremacists are to be unapologetic with their backward thinking than I am determined to equally resolute and proud.

Because like many Latinx, I am the living embodiment of dreams imagined by generations of soldiers, business owners, mothers, and heroes. This is why I’ve started the long journey of taking back my culture, and nurturing it gently in the ground to watch it grow and rise.

It won’t be easy. It will mean learning and speaking Spanish and openly admitting “Necessito practicar” to anyone who will have patience in the fact that I don’t have my past and present tenses differentiated. It will mean teaching my son the language that his ancestors were afraid to teach their children because of small men like Aaron Schlossberg. It will take cooking the recipes my grandmother left behind, and trying to honor her in replicating the tastes and sharing them with my friends and family. It will mean continuing to reflect on my family’s stories of what it must have been like to be a Mexican immigrant, or a Mexican-American in a blatantly racist 20th century, trying to raise a family. It will take immersing myself in the parts of the culture I want to take forward and grow in my own family. Mi cultura is feminism, and intersection, and embracing and understanding our beliefs. It’s supporting businesses and art created by Latinx and working to elevate our cause. It’s educating myself about and fighting for legislation that helps my community. It will take writing our stories, again and again, and speaking our truth.

It will take understanding what our cultura means to me.

I recall the day my husband and I went to the DMV after we were married. After waiting for hours, we were told we’d need an annulment for me to add both my married and maiden names to my license since only my husband’s name was on our marriage certificate. I cried. I wasn’t prepared to lose this part of my heritage. Although proud to be gaining my husband’s Jewish name, I mourned the badge of cultura that my family name had allowed me to openly parade. I thought my identity as a Mexican American woman was based on superficial things like name and language, but now I realize it’s so much more. For me, cultura is a combination of how and what we were taught, how we love, and what we believe and teach our children.


Read: 25 Things I Want To Say To My 25-Year-Old Self Now That I’m Over 30

Recommend this story by clicking the share button below!