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How I Navigate Hispanic Heritage Month As A Puerto Rican Who Can’t Speak Spanish

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Sept. 15 marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. Running until Oct. 15, this is a time when we take pride in our heritage and celebrate the many contributions and achievements stemming from Hispanic and Latin American culture. My father’s family comes from a town in Puerto Rico called Rio Piedras, and my mother’s family is from Rio Grande and Aguada.

Both of my parents learned Spanish through exposure. My father learned during his upbringing in New York; though my mother is also a New York native, she obtained the bulk of the language whilst residing in Puerto Rico for a year, even going as far as forgetting English entirely within a couple of months. Being born and raised in Kissimmee, I got some exposure to the language due to Florida’s expanding Hispanic population, but not nearly the amount my parents received.

Growing up, I have struggled for years with feeling the pride of being Hispanic in my own life and whether or not I even deserved to feel it at all. It was very easy to identify that I was Hispanic, which made the explanation of my lack of Spanish very embarrassing to have to recite and very disappointing to those who had assumed otherwise.

I have been told for years that, despite the food I grew up eating and the music I grew up listening to, that I was not a real Hispanic because I could not converse with others in our language. After a while of hearing this, it almost made me not want to be Hispanic at all, leading to me rejecting my culture and feeling bitter and lost as a result. No matter how many classes I took or how many conversations I overheard my family engage in, I could not grasp the language as well as other people.

This time of year always brings back those old memories, and once again makes me question whether or not I’m deserving of taking part in celebrating this month. Now, at 21 years old, I’ve learned that I was always more than deserving of it; I just had to reconnect with that part of myself again. So, with my limited knowledge of the language, here is how I am choosing to navigate Hispanic Heritage Month as a Puerto Rican who can’t speak Spanish.

Embracing the Theme

The theme for 2023’s Hispanic Heritage Month is “Latinos: Driving Prosperity, Power, and Progress in America.” The purpose is to shine a light on modern Hispanic and Latino trailblazers whose work and talent have contributed to the prosperity and progress of America. The best way one can embrace the theme of this month is by lifting up the work of so many incredible individuals and subsequently giving them their flowers.

For years, I have looked up to Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, who became the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story. It was incredible to see Ariana DeBose follow Moreno’s trail and win an Academy Award for the same role in the 2021 remake of West Side Story, gaining another achievement as the first Afro-Latina (as well as the first LGBTQ+ woman of color) to win this award. In keeping up with learning about other notable contributions individuals from our culture have made, from Sonia Sotomayor being the first Latina on the Supreme Court to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being the youngest woman in history to be elected into Congress at 29, there is so much rich history to be found in this culture, and you may be shocked to discover how much of America’s progress stems from Hispanic heritage.

Embracing the Culture

I can attest to two factors of my upbringing: I grew up eating good food and listening to good music. Both the food and the music of Hispanic culture could be described as bright and flavorful and will definitely have you wanting more. While my family has never been the best at writing down recipes (when you’re Hispanic, measurements are just “feelings”), I am making a point this month to start cooking the food I grew up eating, as it has always brought me the most joy. Arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), sopa de salchichon (salami soup), pernil (pork shoulder), and pollo guisado (chicken stew) are just a few of the foods I dream about often, being four hours away from home. The best way I can embrace my culture is by learning these recipes, so I have something that feels like home that I can also share with others. Just learning to make harina de maiz (cornmeal porridge) this past summer to bring back to my Tallahassee apartment has done more for me in embracing my culture than I had realized.

As far as music goes, I grew up with my mother blasting Marc Anthony, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, Selena, Daddy Yankee, and so many more notable Hispanic and Latino artists. Though I didn’t know the words as a kid, I knew enough to keep me on my feet, dancing my heart out. Fun fact, Selena also started out not knowing Spanish! Even now, in 2023, there are so many emerging artists from this culture that definitely deserve some recognition, and I am making it a point to fully immerse myself in the music of the artists we celebrate this month.

Embracing my Family

The best way to celebrate this month is to remember where I came from. No matter what ridicule I received or opinions about my heritage (or lack thereof) that were thrown my way, I knew that I would always return to a home that loved me for who I was and allowed me to find my own love for our culture. Though I don’t have the best comprehension of the language, I still believe that my family speaking it is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. While being far away from them feels like a disconnect, they are still the first people to encourage me and cheer me on whenever I call to mention something new I learned in my Spanish class and are always ready to answer any questions I may have.

If anything, being in college has made me embrace the time I have while being at home and given me the incentive to have deeper conversations about our culture and where we come from. I am the daughter of two incredible, hard-working Puerto Ricans, who are the children of even more incredible, hard-working Puerto Ricans. While I had to embark on my own journey to embrace my culture, I know that during Hispanic Heritage Month, I celebrate my big, beautiful Puerto Rican family and the contributions we have made to embrace one another.

To all who celebrate, both Spanish-speaking and not, Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

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Cheyenne Cruz is a staff writer for the FSU chapter of HerCampus. Her work involves writing for personal experiences, entertainment and pop culture, and campus life at FSU. She is a Senior at Florida State University, majoring in Humanities and minoring in Hospitality Management. She also serves as the Event Planning Coordinator for the Themed Entertainment Association at FSU. In her free time, she loves reading and video chatting with her family just to check up on her dogs. She has a love for pop culture and a passion for discovering a myriad of films and tv shows, both old and new. Any song in her playlist is easily located from a movie soundtrack, and she loves bringing her new discoveries to so many different people.