We’re Redefining What It Means to Be a “No Sabo” Kid

·12 min read

Growing up, I considered myself an excellent Spanish speaker. I’d interpret and translate between English and Spanish as early as kindergarten. I enjoyed listening to music in both languages and watched telenovelas on Telemundo and sitcoms on Disney Channel. When my younger cousin would say “no sabo,” my siblings and I would laugh and, in unison, correct him: “It’s ‘no se.’”

It wasn’t until I was finally able to return to Mexico that I was quickly humbled. A taxi driver asked me where I was from, and when I told him the name of my city, he emphasized, “Where are you really from? You sound like a gringa.” Up until that point, I hadn’t questioned my level of fluency.

Language proficiency is another form of gatekeeping Latinidad. We see it with the term “no sabo kid,” which refers to someone who isn’t fluent in Spanish. It ranges from light teasing, like I was guilty of in my youth, to shaming and exclusion. But, as it’s been said time and time again, Latinxs are not a monolith — so why do we continue to uphold strict criteria of what it means to be Latinx? These imaginary metrics of Latinidad only divide us further.

Moreover, Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America, and it’s not even native to it. Across the region, locals also speak Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and English. All of these languages, including Spanish, were brought to Latin America through colonization and imperialism, a gruesome history with a devastating legacy. Even more, there are also myriad Indigenous languages that survived this violent history and are still spoken throughout South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America, and it’s not even native to it.

Back in the U.S., assimilation has played a major role in the loss of these cultural tongues. Many immigrants were robbed of opportunities and attacked — and continue to be persecuted and discriminated against — because of their accent. The loss of one’s so-called mother tongue isn’t out of a lack of love for one’s culture; rather, it has been a tool for survival — both among English-language Latinxs in the U.S. and Spanish, Portuguese, and Creole speakers in Latin America.

I now see that my cousin, like many “no sabo” kids, was doing the best he could with what he knew. Language doesn’t come naturally; we’re not born meant to speak a specific one. Language is taught, and not all of us have access to the same level of education or resources. Not speaking a language properly, or at all, doesn’t make someone less Latinx. We all have the right to celebrate and connect to our cultures however we choose.

We spoke with five women who refuse to be shamed for their language abilities and who have found other ways to celebrate their cultures.

Miriam Valdes-Carletti

My parents are both Salvadoran, and when my family lived under one roof, Spanish was the main language spoken in our home. But once my parents divorced, they only spoke English to my brother and me. I can’t hold a full conversation in Spanish, but I know enough to get by.

I’ve experienced the most criticism for not being fluent in Spanish from my family. They’ll ask me why I don’t speak it and put a lot of the blame on me. My mom also blames me for my brother not being able to speak Spanish. I’d translate for him because I thought that was more helpful than my mom speaking to him in Spanish and expecting him to respond back.

I went to Toronto for university, and it’s so diverse there. I met people from various backgrounds who spoke their family’s native language, and it encouraged me to want to learn Spanish. I took Spanish 101, the most basic introduction to a Spanish course available, in my first year, and I got the worst grade I ever received in my undergraduate education. I was absolutely gutted. I was embarrassed because there were non-Latinxs in that class that did better than I did, and I felt so ashamed. I thought, “This is my language. How come I’m not good at it?” I was so distraught after failing that class, that I decided not to try again.

“Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make me less Latina.”

Miriam Valdes-Carletti

Living in Saskatoon, a city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, I’m even more isolated from my culture, but I’m so proud to be Latina. Despite that college experience, learning to speak Spanish is something I’ve always wanted to do. So I’m giving it another shot. I’ve been watching telenovelas (I like Netflix’s La casa de las flores), using Duolingo, and attempting to sign up for classes that best fit me.

I know now that not speaking Spanish doesn’t make me less Latina. If you’re trying to learn the language of your family’s origin, that’s great; but if you’re not, that’s fine, too. It’s just a matter of determining what’s important to you. There are different aspects of what makes you who you are. It’s not just the language you speak.

Marie Louise Watson

In 1976, my dad migrated from Haiti to the United States. To this day, he has a very thick accent but speaks five languages. He claims that when my brothers and I were younger, he tried teaching us Creole, but allegedly we didn’t take it seriously. Looking back, I wish that he had pushed us a little more, but, as a parent myself, I understand that he had a lot on his plate.

My grandmother lives in Haiti. She’ll be 100 in October, and whenever our family calls her, my dad will try to get my siblings and me to say something to her in Creole. If my cousins are on the call, they’ll laugh and send us messages poking fun at us. There are times that I wish I could communicate with her.

Eager to learn more about my culture, a year after I graduated from college, I moved from Southern California to New York in hopes of connecting with other people like me. I made a lot of Haitian friends out there. It was so interesting that, even without knowing how to speak Creole, our experiences were so similar. They really helped me understand my dad better and where his ideas came from. I no longer felt like something was wrong with me.

“We have a responsibility to figure out how to keep our culture alive, but life can get difficult, and we should give ourselves grace.”

Marie Louise Watson

While my dad may not have taught us Creole, he believed heavily in us knowing our history and where our blood comes from. Even without the language, I know that I continue to be connected through the effort and fight that exist in my bloodline.

We have a responsibility to figure out how to keep our culture alive, but life can get difficult, and we should give ourselves grace. Language isn’t the only way. There are other ways, like learning to cook the food or passing down stories. There’s this artist named Phyllisia Ross who is Haitian American and sings in Creole and English, and while I may not understand everything she’s saying, I’ll listen to her albums as a way for me to feel closer to my culture. It’s never too late to find new ways to feel connected.

Bárbara Astrini-Currie

When I was 10 years old, I moved to the United States from Brazil. While I spoke Portuguese at home with my parents and sisters, when I go back home and talk with my family, I struggle with the language. Sometimes, I’ll just say a word in English with a Portuguese accent and hope for the best, and my aunts will laugh.

I grew up in South Carolina, where there weren’t many immigrants, so speaking perfect English with a flawless accent was a mechanism for survival. As a result, I felt like I was falling behind on my Portuguese. I thought I wasn’t Brazilian enough but also not American enough. As bilingual, or “não sabo,” kids, we often feel like we’re lacking, but no one is the master of any language.

However, I now see my bilingual abilities, even if they’re not perfect, as a gift. It impacts all areas of my life, so I turned it into a tool for everything I do as opposed to seeing it as a moral failing. When I went back to Brazil for work, I was nervous about not knowing professional terms in Portuguese, but my coworkers saw my dual language skill as a strength and encouraged me to express myself the best way I could, even if that meant saying things in English.

”Sometimes, I’ll just say a word in English with a Portuguese accent and hope for the best.”

Bárbara Astrini-Currie

Portuguese is such a beautiful, unique language, and every time I see it or hear it, I feel so much pride. It’s the fifth-most spoken language in the world, but it’s often overlooked in Latinx spaces. I have a lot of childhood wounds from being taken from my home so young, and trying to hold on to my Portuguese has really helped heal them. It allows me to connect with my people even here in Astoria, Queens, where there are a lot of Brazilians. But, more importantly, being bilingual helps me understand the scope of language in general. It’s always evolving. I also have more compassion for people who have unique accents or may not speak fluent English. I’ve learned to have that compassion toward myself as well.

Patty Delgado

I’ve always struggled with speaking Spanish, even as a child. While I spoke Spanish at home, I watched cartoons and learned at school in English. I had a really hard time navigating both of these languages, so I didn’t fully grasp English until first or second grade. I was speaking a lot of Spanglish, unaware which language was which.

Growing up, I experienced teasing from family for the way I spoke Spanish, especially when we’d visit them in Mexico. It was very disheartening because you’re trying your best to connect with them and are already aware of how much you’re struggling to grasp the language. Juggling between two languages is a skill, but, for some reason, I was being shamed. It definitely sucked. But as an adult, it’s a skill I’ve come to appreciate.

As the founder and CEO of Hija de tu Madre, it’s important to me that we explore the different complexities within our culture. One theme that comes up a lot is the politics of language and the shame of not speaking Spanish. Hija de tu Madre is pro-no sabo. There’s a collection dedicated to us. Through it, we hope that we’re empowering kids that don’t speak Spanish and maybe want to learn but don’t have the support to do so. To my fellow no-sabos: Be proud of being a hybrid. Be proud of all the layers that come with your identity.

These days, I would consider myself fluent in both languages. Granted, I still struggle with Spanish. I’m guilty of all those grammatical errors that characterize a “no sabo” kid. That’s why Spanglish is so special to me. It gets a lot of hate from orthodox Spanish speakers, which I think is bullshit. Spanglish is the hybrid of my identity and preferred language. It allows me to use the tools that I have to communicate in the best way I can. Being more compassionate to all my identity intersections has allowed me to be proud of my broken Spanish.

Here’s the thing: Language is fluid, and it’s allowed to change. Spanish is not native to Latin America. Understanding language as a fluid construct makes me more compassionate because it’s not a one-size-fits-all language.

Lucía Lainez

My first language was Spanish, but when I was three years old, I had a language delay due to a chronic ear infection. My speech therapy, daycares, and preschool were all in English, so I began struggling with Spanish early on.

I’m a second-generation Nicaragüense, and both my parents are fluent in Spanish. My mom is actually the only bilingual one out of all her siblings. Anytime I’d try to speak in Spanish, my accent was ridiculed. I was a dual-language learner. Whenever I responded, there was hesitation, and I almost developed a bit of a stutter in both languages. It caused a lot of anxiety for me.

In high school, I took my first formal Spanish class, and I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought. Everyone was expecting me to speak more than I knew, including the Spanish teacher who was a non-Latinx white lady who learned Spanish from Spain, so that’s what she was teaching.

“I wish I had the opportunity to make mistakes out loud in Spanish or English.”

Lucía Lainez

There’s a loss of my innocence that I mourn. I wish I had the opportunity to make mistakes out loud in Spanish or English. I’m a pediatric bilingual speech-language pathologist supporting children from birth to age five. These days, I often support the caregivers so that they understand that their voice and their words don’t have to be perfect in order to be understood. It’s OK to get a little bit messy.

I think the biggest “aha!” moment for me was when I started traveling as an adult to Latin American countries. It was the cariño of strangers in countries outside of the U.S. that propelled my interest in lifelong learning — not just through the language but also culturally. It was about recognizing that Spanish is not the only language spoken in Latin America. We also need to normalize people speaking in their native Indigenous languages.

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