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This is America: Spanish is the language of my culture. I don't speak it, and it haunts me.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/22/2022 Jordan Mendoza, USA TODAY
My dad didn't teach any of his three boys Spanish, but he still instilled that we should be proud of our Mexican heritage and never forget our family roots. © Jordan Mendoza My dad didn't teach any of his three boys Spanish, but he still instilled that we should be proud of our Mexican heritage and never forget our family roots.

Spanish is the language of my family and culture. It hurts not knowing it.

I was finally having my “Selena” moment.

No, it wasn’t me performing in front of tens of thousands of fans or about to win a Grammy Award. It was me, in a crowd full of people I identify with culturally, unable to speak Spanish to those who would expect me to.

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Of all the iconic scenes from the hit 1997 biopic of Selena Quintanilla Pérez, there are two that stick out to me: when there is concern of her performing in Mexico because she doesn’t speak Spanish, and when her father, played by Edward James Olmos, explains why it feels risky for them to go.

"Down there, you got to speak perfectly, or the press will eat you up and spit you out alive," he says. "We got to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we got to prove to the Americans how American we are. We got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans, and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It's exhausting."

I normally love going to cover in-person events, but this was the first one I felt nervous about. It was a press conference for the Mexico National Football Team, where players and managers would be speaking Spanish. Luckily, English interpretation was offered for the media, and some players even answered in English, but I felt embarrassed. 

I felt like a fraud – in an area where most people looked like me. 

My name is Jordan Mendoza, a trending news reporter at USA TODAY, and one of the few nearly full-Hispanic people that don't know how to speak Spanish. 

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Feeling like an outsider

As I got older, I started to realize I was missing out. I couldn’t be involved in conversations. I couldn’t understand Mexican pop culture and jokes that everyone found funny left me confused. I avoided all conversations that could be in Spanish because I wanted to avoid looking like a fool.

This is something that has plagued me most of my life. I’ve always known I wouldn’t be fully accepted into American culture because of my background, but I’ve always felt like an outsider among people from the same background as me because I can’t speak Spanish. I even took Spanish all of high school in hopes of getting better, but I still struggled. I have fears of learning Spanish now because I think it'll only make things worse since I won't sound as natural as someone who grew up learning it.

However, I know I am not alone. 

 A Pew Research Center analysis from 2015 found 97% of Latinx immigrant parents speak to their children in Spanish, but that drops to 71% among U.S. born second-generation Latinx parents. My grandma, born in Mexico, taught my dad and his four siblings Spanish, but my dad didn’t teach me. My mom was never taught Spanish by her grandparents. The most exposure I got was my grandma speaking some Spanglish to me, and me responding in English. 

It’s a tough thing to figure out; how can I say I’m Mexican and proud of it when I can’t even speak the language my family, friends and colleagues do?

Taking pride in heritage, culture

Even though I still struggle with my imposter syndrome, I try not to let my language deficiencies define who I am.

I still observe Mexican holidays, and I make it a point to have my Hispanic culture be included in USA TODAY coverage, from Día de la Independencia to Nochebuena. Hispanic families are known to be massive, and I make sure to stay involved and see as much of my family as I can. And if there is something, or someone, bringing our culture to mainstream media, you best believe I won't shut up about it. 

While I try not to let this define who I am, what I do ask from my community is to be more sympathetic toward those like me. I can't count the number of times I've been met with negative reactions from others for saying "no hablo español" or responding in English. Sadly, there are derogatory terms for people like me.

I know I'm not as Mexican or Hispanic as I could be, and I'm trying to teach myself to be okay with it; what I lack in language, I make up in pride and knowledge. Sure, my dad didn't teach me Spanish, but the most valuable thing he taught me was to be proud of my heritage and to never forget my roots. 

It'll never be easy to accept, but I feel lucky to be Mexican-American and have such a rich culture for me to share with everyone, and I encourage everyone to immerse themselves in it. 

I am proud of my background, proud of my culture and proud I am able to showcase it here at USA TODAY as I continue to learn more about myself, while celebrating all the fantastic work of Hispanic Heritage Month. As Selena, played by Jennifer Lopez, said at her press conference in Monterrey: "Me siento muy... excited!" 

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: This is America: Spanish is the language of my culture. I don't speak it, and it haunts me.



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