When my parents moved to Poinciana, Florida from New York City, I was not prepared for the transition at all. I was accustomed to seeing Black faces at every corner and in my circle of cousins, aunts and uncles. We had a Winn Dixie, one gas station and one main road to get in and out. There were plenty of trees and open spaces in this newly developed town. I do remember feeling like Poinciana feeling soulless to me. There were no skyscrapers, graffiti or bodegas. Moving to a brand new constructed town was night and day for my sister and I. But I think the biggest transition for me was being Black and Latina in this new space.
As a result, there are people who speak multiple languages by way of family, friends and work. I am saying all of this to say that to be Black and speak Spanish is not that big of a deal in New York City. However, when I moved to Florida and other children or adults would inquire about my cultural background, they would press me for my lineage and I remember feeling uncomfortable. That feeling would not leave until I left Poinciana for college but the experiences I endured is a part of my psyche.
Nobody else who was around me and Latinx had this experience. I was always secure in my Blackness and the inability to speak Spanish fluently alienated me from fellow Latinx folx. Not only did I go to schools where the majority of Black kids were West Indian and the Latinx kids were white or indigenous, my home church reflected my community. The primary language of the services in both the altar and children’s church was Spanish. By 6 or 7 years old, I knew terms related to food was as far as my bilingualism went. My lack of comprehension mixed with the fact I was the only Black girl in Missionettes resulted in resentment towards my neighborhood, school and church. (Missionettes was a youth organization in the Assembly of God church, now goes by Mpact Girls Clubs). I felt like an outsider all of the time and did not know how to connect with other kids as of yet.
By the time middle school came around, I was extremely insecure about my Spanish speaking skills. Granted, I was not born in Honduras but I was first generation on my father’s side so most people feel as though I should have known how to speak Spanish. In regards to my middle school, I was tormented and bullied to say the least. Not only did I have to defend my “Latin-ness”, but I also had to literally defend myself everyday for three years. I have forgotten most of my years at my middle school due to my persistent effort to actively push bad memories out.
Ironically, the journey of self acceptance was ignited in high school for me. I applied go be in the IB program. In these classes, the demographics that I was accustomed to slightly shifted because most of my classmates were white because of the “difficulty and rigor” of the IB program, meaning most of Black and Brown folx zoned for that particular school was not encouraged to apply to be in the IB program because the administration did not believe in those students. Those kids were not given an opportunity in regards to access to the program which resulted in staggering demographics of the IB classes. Similar to most high school programs, IB students were required to register for a foreign language for all four years. I chose Spanish because I thought learning for four years would be beneficial to me in the long haul.
In relation to the ability to speak Spanish, I became more confident once I was put in IB Spanish HL (which is similar to AP Spanish) (HL is Higher Level) by my teacher against my will. She took attendance for our class, came across my last name and proceeded to speak Spanish to me in front of the class. Although I was quite hesitant, I dove into the material and realized that one of the reasons I did exceptionally well in her class was because she gave me the space to make mistakes and learn on my own accord. I ended up passing with flying colors.
Writing this after graduating from undergrad, I found understanding with my relationship with the Latinx community and how that insecurity played a part in how I engage with non Black folx. In retrospect, the need to prove my Latinx-ness by way of speaking Spanish brings up some animosity to this day. However, I am taking steps to be open to having conversations in order to work that muscle. I now have re-downloaded Duolingo on my phone, actively order food in Spanish if I go to a Hispanic restaurant and watch shows that are in Spanish without subtitles sometimes. I do want to learn Spanish to communicate with my relatives and for my future children but that skill will need to take time to sharpen.