Second- and Third-Generation Latinas and the Difficulty to ‘Fit In’


“And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” –Edward James Olmos, playing Abraham Quintanilla, in the film Selena

In that one-minute clip from the film Selena, Abraham Quintanilla could have so easily been my father, and Selena, rolling her eyes and making silly faces, could have been me, all while my older brother laughed in the passenger seat.

My family is Puerto Rican, not Mexican. And my brother and I are second-generation Latinos, not third-generation Latinos like Selena, A.B., and Suzette.

But regardless of the nuances, this message rings so true in my culture, too – as I imagine it does for most Latinos.

I vividly remember myself as a child and teenager trying to understand the duality of being a Nuyorican.

I loved being Puerto Rican. The gleaming waters, flavorful foods, vibrant music, energetic dances, and the undeniable pride were equally as exciting as they were comfortable. It was home.

But la isla del encanto seemed so old school. I thought there were too many Spanish conversations and too few homes and churches with running water and air conditioning.

Although my parents always boasted about being “Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican,” because they were born in the island, I would’ve never traded my birthplace from NYC to the motherland.

Who cares if Héctor Lavoe or Gilberto Santa Rosa were born there? Mariah Carey and Nas were born in the States, and that’s the music de ahora.

Besides, I would reason, those salseros wouldn’t have become so mainstream if it weren’t for us Nuyoricans (Take that, papi).

My dad never bought it, though.

He always reminded me of our history, talent, strength, and wisdom. He knew the racism my brother and I would undoubtedly face growing up in los Estados Unidos, and he needed to instill a sense of Latino pride in us early on. And it worked.

What didn’t work, however, were my parents’ attempts at making me speak Spanish fluently.

I could sing the lyrics to songs by Selena y La India, and I could respond to abuela and abuelo. What else did I need to know?

Besides, I reasoned, I was always going to be “la gringa” of the family, so why even attempt to perfect my Spanish?

And it must be noted that I acquired the “gringa” nickname, like so many of us do, early on.

I’m a light-skinned Latina with long, thin, straight hair and natural blonde highlights, which apparently made me white. But my “Valley girl” accent, obsession with the Spice Girls, and fondness for cardigan sweaters, according to my friends and family, meant I was a full-on “gringita.”

Interestingly, although unsurprisingly, white America never agreed with my family.

In middle school, my family always teased me for not speaking Spanish properly, but my white school friends said I spoke English with an accent.

In high school, my brother made fun of me for listening to rock music, while my white peers expected me to translate reggaeton lyrics.

During my undergraduate years, my brother would refer to me as “college,” but to my actual college classmates, I was just another spicy Latina.

And while my family always reminded me that my acculturation would take me far, my white, male colleague once “joked” that regardless of how smart and talented I was, I’d never be anything more than “the Puerto Rican girl.”

How could I, like Quintanilla so aptly put it, prove my Latinidad and my Americanism if I’m failing so horribly at both?

There’s no winning, because “no soy de aquí, ni soy de allá.”

Luckily, I no longer feel like I have to prove my identity to anyone.

Because being Latina is a multidimensional experience.

My iPod skips from Marc Anthony to Avril Lavigne, then from Juanes to Lauryn Hill. My restaurant of choice would typically be Italian, but my pantry is filled with either Goya or Iberia. I prefer reggae over reggaeton, but I will cut you out of my life if you say salsa music is anything short of brilliant (joking – kind of).

I love my Puerto Rican roots, but I’m also not ashamed that I’ve acculturated into American society.

And to my second- and third-generation Latinos, you shouldn’t be either. After all, you’re still Latino.

Your Spanish Sucks, You’re Still Latino

When your family speaks to you in Spanish, do you respond in English?

Have you mastered the Spanglish language?

After you tell your tia “bendición,” do you hide for cover, hoping the Spanish conversation doesn’t go further than her blessings?

Do you ever wonder why most “Rossi’s” aren’t expected to know Italian, but “Rodriguez’s” are given disapproving eyes for not being bilingual?

You’re not alone.

Among U.S.-born Latinos, more than half are English dominant.

Whether their parents forbade them from speaking their native tongue, as an attempt to help them “succeed” in American society, or they simply rebelled against the “old culture,” most second- and third-generation Latinos don’t speak fluent Spanish.

This is even true for some of our favorite Latino pop stars.

Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Rosario Dawson, and Selena Gomez are all non-Spanish fluent Latinas. But they grace the covers of “Latina” magazine and are hailed as Latino megastars.

Their Spanish skills, or lack thereof, just like yours and mine, don’t define their Latinidad.

Remember to drop this bit of information to folk who try to criticize you for not being able to speak “your” language.

You Can Pass as White or Black, You’re Still Latino

Latino is not a race.

The term refers to people of Latin American or Spanish Caribbean origin.

These countries are diverse, multiracial, and generally racially mixed. The people that inhabit these lands, or whose families once occupied the lands, come in many different shades and phenotypes.

Although images of the olive-skinned, curly haired, and curvy-shaped Latina permeate all areas of the media, these representations don’t showcase the full spectrum of Latino aesthetics, leaving many who don’t fit the mold feeling “not Latina enough.”

All of the times I’ve been called “gringa” have left me insecure.

My looks and style of dress along with my German surname leave me asking new friends and acquaintances if they knew I was Latina when they first met me, with my fingers crossed, hoping for a “yes.”

Meanwhile, mutual acquaintances are often surprised when they realize my brother is Puerto Rican, as they thought he was Indian or Afro-Caribbean.

The uncertain stares my Afro-Latino cousins receive when they speak Spanish remind me that this is not the Latino look people are used to seeing.

Don’t let your “white girl” style or kinky hair keep you from owning your Latinidad.

Remind people of the range of Latino looks.

Shock them by letting them know that Alexis Bledel, Tatyana Ali, Sara Paxton, and Christina Milian are all Latinas.

You’re Not a Latin American Studies Major (or Minor), You’re Still Latino

I used to be intimidated by fellow Latino classmates who knew all about the political climates of each Latin American country, the history of colorism in the Spanish Caribbean, and the immigration laws of the U.S.

These people knew so much. They were authentic.

They were also Latin American Studies majors and minors.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this discipline.

But I was measuring my Latinidad to people who spent weekdays learning and weekends studying the history, theories, art, policies, and economics of Latin America and Latin American people, which made it almost impossible for me as a full-time student, college journalist, and peer adviser to catch up.

But that’s the thing. My ethnicity and culture aren’t games.

Although these Latin American experts-in-training unknowingly made me feel as if I were playing make believe, there was nothing fake about my identity and my experiences as a second-generation Latina.

But I wouldn’t have learned this very personal and indispensible lesson if I hadn’t participated in what scholars call retro-acculturation.

Retro-acculturation happens when minorities who have assimilated or acculturated to their new culture begin searching for elements of their ethnic identities to incorporate into their new concept of themselves.

I’m a proponent of Latino rights in the U.S. I regularly aim to debunk media-perpetuated stereotypes about Latinas. I act as a mentor for numerous young Latinas. And I try to write stories that highlight the experiences and issues that Latinos face.

In doing this, I learn more and more about my ethnicity, which in turn helps me understand and accept myself both as “la gringa” y “la Boricua.”

And you can do the same.

Acknowledge your roots and acknowledge the constant struggles of what it means to be a Latina or woman of color in this country.

Read and learn more about both of your worlds.

Accept and respect the person shaped by those two worlds.

Be true to yourself, and don’t feel ashamed to relish your duality.

If you’re like me, you’re not exactly the person to go to when a friend needs someone to proof his or her Spanish assignment. But, oddly, there are still terms you only know how to say in Spanish.

This alone may make you feel as if you’re failing in both of your worlds, as it seems that you’re “[less] Mexican than the Mexicans and [less] American than the Americans.”

But considering that Latinos, like all humans, are multidimensional, you are not less than anything or anyone.

There is no need to “exhaust” yourself by trying to live up to what society has deemed “Latino” or “American.”

You are exactly the person you need to be, and you can thank both your Latinidad and the U.S.A. for that.


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Raquel is a Latina feminist, multimedia journalist, and social media strategist based in Orlando, Florida. In just a few months, she’ll be trading in her sandals for boots to work on her MA in Women’s Studies and New Media at NYU. In addition to her work at Everyday Feminism, Raquel also heads social media for Adios Barbie and writes and edits for Latinitas magazine. Follow her on Twitter @raquelreichard.