Monday, August 6, 2012

I Do Not Speak Spanish. And Apparently, That Makes Me An Embarrassment To My Culture.

I spent the last three days at the BlogHer conference. And I have mixed feelings about it.  Don't get me wrong, I had some great moments, met some pretty inspirational women, spent time with my BBFs (Blog Buddies Forever) and even shook hands with Soledad O'Brian. 

But last night I walked away feeling hurt and confused.

It happened at the Social Fiesta of all places. I was standing by the dance floor, having a good time, enjoying the music and chatting with a small group of women. I mentioned that I do not speak Spanish. One of the women - a woman who pretty much kept her back to me the whole time - turned to me and said, "You're just an embarrassment to our culture."

I was so completely caught off guard by the audacity of this woman's statement I didn't know what to say. I walked away without a word.  And I felt really small.   

It was like a kick in the gut.  It was rude just for the sake of being rude.  And it put a damper on the rest of my night because her words continued to ring in my ear like a horrible case a tinnitus.

Why would she something like that to someone she had just met, whose name she didn't even bother to ask? I wonder what culture means to her.      

I have struggled with cultural identity for years and I’ve always felt like I’ve never had a place. Dancing between two worlds in cultural limbo. Growing up in a diverse Latino neighborhood and not speaking Spanish, I heard it all: valley girl, gringa, stupida. Accused of not being proud of my heritage and interrogated on why my mother never taught me Spanish; my mother silently accused of parental neglect. 

"¿Por quĂ©?the older generation likes to ask.  As if it is my fault I do not Spanish, as if I could have taught myself at two or three years old.    

But never in my 36.11 years on this earth have I been called an embarrassment to my culture. That's a pretty serious insult. 

Initially my feelings were hurt.  But now, I'm just pissed.  Because how dare she say I'm an embarrassment.  Her statement was not only ignorant but arrogant.  Because that woman knows nothing about me, my life, my writing.  

She doesn't know that my mother tried raising my brother and me bilingual.  But my brother was three years old and still not speaking, so my mother decided to speak only in English.

That woman also doesn't know that I am an honest person. I am a good person. I have worked since I was 13 years old, sometimes 2 jobs at a time.  I have worked my way through college, took classes throughout my pregnancy and graduated with honors.  I am in graduate school because I am eager to learn.  I am an involved parent.  I advocate to ensure The Boy has the services he needs.  She doesn't know that my ultimate goal for this blog is build a dream school in The Bronx - a borough that is in dire need for more special needs schools and services.                

I guess none of that stuff counts?  These are not the characteristics a culture could be proud of.  My poor mother, she must be so ashamed of daughter she raised.   

Is speaking Spanish the only way I can represent cultural pride?

I've watched documentaries and own dozens of books about Puerto Rico. I've studied its history and read its literature. I (I have many Spanish speaking friends who do not know the island history, the way I do.)

I am proud of being Latina.  I am proud of my color, my hair and my hips.  I am proud of my name with its Qs and Zs.  I am proud of the place my parents were born.  And I am proud of the language I long to speak but have never been taught.

Not being able to speak Spanish does not me any less proud of being Puerto Rican.     

In a conference of 5000 women, a super small percentage attended the Special Needs panels on Thursday. Autism is especially stigmatized in our culture.  As a culture, special needs isn't really something we talk about (let alone write publicly about).  And sitting in the Gramercy East room that Thursday, I am pretty sure I was the only Latina in the room. 

For several hours we talked about loss, love, acceptance, awareness and advocacy.  We talked a lot about respect. I learned so much in a short time and I was proud to sit in a room with women I admire. Women who were fighting - not only for their kid - but for all individuals with special needs. I was among women making real differences in their communities. 

The woman who made that statement about me being "an embarrassment" wasn't in the any of the Special Needs sessions with me.  It's too bad.  She could have learned something.   


  1. You know, sometimes people are bitchy and mean because it makes them feel better about themselves. The fact that she kept her back to you and didn't bother to get to know you speaks volumes to the kind of person she is. Don't allow her to overshadow what was otherwise a good experience for you, and don't feel shame for what you don't know. It lessens all of the absolutely fabulous aspects of you.


  2. No need to go over all of the awesome things about you, because you have tons of friends and readers who could say them for you! I say it because I do the same....I get so many great reviews and support from friends, but one negative comment and I find myself listing everything great about me to try to understand. But you know what I have realized? The more relevant and important you become, the fans grow but so do the haters. Think about a celebrity. Imagine if they sat and read all the comments posted on their pictures and articles about them. They'd be devastated. So please don't let this get to you...

    And another thing... I can totally relate about the culture... I'm Italian and Irish...3rd dad's side of the fam is from NY where we all embrace our culture...and mom is from down south where so many people don't even know their background. I grew up feeling like I didn't fit in culturally when I lived in Cali and VA, and to top it off I look like I'm even when I did find those similar to me, I didn't look like them... But you know what? I ended up here in the Bronx, and started my site. And I feel like this is where I belong. This is where I fit in. And you have found your calling. You've been an amazing advocate for your son. So yes we embrace our cultures as much as our lives have allowed us to, but we have also started our own groups and cultures that we can only hope will live on forever.

  3. I'm still in shock that this took place in a space where we're supposed to celebrate our diversity and culture. It makes me sad.... But I know that if we look beyond the negativity, push through it with a head held up high, we'll make it. Yo te admiro y te quiero mucho Lisa. I'm lucky to call you my friend.

  4. I am hurt for you, Lisa, and can't begin to imagine how thoroughly stunned you must've been by what was most certainly an arrogant and self-centered statement. You're an amazing mom, friend, advocate and writer. I've had similar struggles "within" my community. These struggles don't exist for me within the mainstream. NEVER. It was Nely Galan who said it best at Hispanicize: "It's easier to be Latina in the mainstream than in the Latino community." Far as I'm concerned Latino comes in all shapes, colors an language fluency. A big, fat hug to you, my friend.


AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.