13 A Spanish Gringa

Isabel Howell

Click to listen to this essay

In this essay, Howell probes the limits of social acceptance when it comes to the expression and embodiment of culture. Weaving together their own experience and that of Gloria Anzaldua’s in the essay ‘How To Tame a Wild Tongue’ Howell unpacks the multiple forms of prejudice one grapples with when their identity doesn’t fit neatly into one cultural container. Acknowledging that the expression of their Cuban identity rests on more than language alone but broader cultural values, Howell in this very essay exemplifies the ways in which writing can extend and expand our thinking through critical interaction with a published text.

Isabel Howell


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

A Spanish Gringa

Growing up in Boston, I was always surrounded by other kids of different ethnicities, many of whose parents came to the U.S. to start a better life. A big portion of those people were Latino. They came from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and numerous other places. The common characteristics of kids from these countries were dark skin and fluency in their parents’ language: Spanish.

With my mother being Cuban and my father a proud Bostonian, I was raised as a Spanish speaking American, where English was the dominant language. However, my translucent-looking skin and absence of a Spanish accent led others to only acknowledge the American-ness. Starting from elementary school and continuing through high school, the Hispanic side of my identity was denied and ignored, by both Latino and American students. Meanwhile, the American half of me was nurtured, encouraged and praised. Hispanic-ness was only appreciated if one were the whole exotic package: dark skin, fluency in Spanish and a strong expression of culture.

At home, I was able to fully relax into my identity through the Cuban culture I had grown up with, while balancing it with the already prominent New England culture. From dancing bachata with my mom, to eating my grandmother’s famous arroz con habichuelas and playing dominos, I knew I was Cuban. So, why did I feel so inadequate in the presence of other Hispanic people, or with others who spoke the language better than I did? Gloria Anzaldua’s essay, “How To Tame a Wild Tongue”, helped me understand how being an untraditional Hispanic is okay, and that it doesn’t take away from one’s Hispanic identity. In her essay, Anzaldua shares her struggle of being a Latina immigrant in the U.S., while also feeling like an outsider among her own people because of her unique, Chicana heritage.

In her essay, Anzaldua describes how speaking in a different dialect of Spanish led to her being seen as a traitor to other Spaniards and Latinos who spoke the same language. She is also told that by speaking English she is “a cultural traitor…ruining the Spanish language” and that her Chicano Spanish is “a mutilation of Spanish” (36). In this instance, not only is Anzaldua being attacked for speaking English, but also for speaking in a different dialect when she does speak Spanish. The prejudice within the Spanish culture pushes on Anzaldua, while on the other side, she is combatting the already present prejudice of Americans toward Latinos.

Additionally, Anzaldua explains how, as she was growing up, her dialect of Spanish was looked down upon and she was ridiculed by Americans for speaking Spanish, while also by other Latinos for speaking Chicano Spanish. She explains how this restricted her growth as a person and confused her about her identity. Anzaldua recalls how being caught for speaking Spanish at school was “good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler” (34). The punishment the writer received for speaking her native language in the 1950s can help remind people of how much the world has changed.

Oftentimes, I was also told off by my family for not speaking enough Spanish, acting like a “gringa,” and criticized if my Spanish was not perfect. This burden pressed on me as I struggled with how to express my Cuban identity.

As I read Anzaldua’s essay, I realized that there are many other people like me who aren’t necessarily fluent in the language of their ethnicity. As Anzaldua explains the meaning of being Chicana, she describes a situation to readers:

Chicana feminists often skirt around each other with suspicion and hesitation. For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. Then it dawned on me. To be close to another Chicana is like looking in the mirror. We’re afraid of what we’ll see there. Pena. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong… (39)

Because of the scrutiny within the Latino community, Anzaldua describes how Chicano people are taught to be ashamed of their culture, and don’t have the opportunity to be proud of their unique heritage. This forces many Chicano people to lose a sense of self, a part of their identity, and to feel lost. They feel like they don’t belong anywhere.

This got me thinking about the idea of mixed ethnicity in today’s world. Oftentimes we see people “claim” their ethnicities when they have little-to-no experience with the culture or the language. Especially when there is such a large Hispanic community in the U.S., the criteria for being accepted into the community falls heavily on language fluency. It can be cutthroat at times, as it was for the Chicano people described in Anzaldua’s essay who were shunned for not speaking the purest of the Spanish dialects.

In defining a Chicana, Anzaldua stresses the idea that language isn’t the only characteristic by which to measure someone’s Chicano-ness. She emphasizes that “a monolingual Chicana whose first language is English or Spanish is just as much a Chicana as one who speaks several variants of Spanish” (39). Ethnicity is made up not only by language, but by culture and traditions. Anzaldua makes that very clear in her writing, pointing out that when she was growing up, language was taken away as a measure of one’s identity. So, she focused on culture and embraced her people’s food, dancing and music to continue living as a Chicana.

The idea that culture is just as important as the language when expressing one’s ethnicity really stood out to me. While I may not speak Spanish fluently, I still grew up with the Cuban culture, and that is a way I can connect with people. Additionally, while people can point to my physical appearance or language fluency in questioning my credentials as a Cuban, they can’t take away the culture I know and grew up with.

Finally, Anzaldua explores the special circumstance of being “mestiza”, which means mixed. As a Chicana, she was constantly pressured into conforming herself to identify as either a Mexican, or an American. In reality however, she is neither. In her elaboration on what life is like as a Chicana, Anzaldua describes how “Nosotros los Chicanos straddle the borderlands. On one side of us, we are constantly exposed to the Spanish of the Mexicans, on the other side we hear the Anglo’s incessant clamoring so that we forget our language” (42). In this passage, we see that Anzaldua is conveying the message that one should be proud if they are “mestiza”, that it’s okay not to fit perfectly in one single box, and that being mestiza can be its own unique identity, like any other.

While people are often encouraged and praised for thinking “outside of the box”, they often don’t apply that to identity. Society as a whole seems organized so people can fit into a certain “box”. However, as time goes by, one needs to remember that not fitting into a certain group of people is something to admire, even though it might be scary. Anzaldua’s point here is saying exactly that. It is comforting to know that there are different types of “mixed” people, and that I am not necessarily alone. Overall, Anzaldua’s writing has helped me realize that while language is a part of one’s ethnic identity, culture and family are just as important and should be recognized. Today, if someone knows more than one language, they are highly praised, and, in most cases, it helps them in life. Remembering this reminded me to feel proud of my Cuban ethnicity and motivated me to continue learning and practicing Spanish. The author’s struggle with trying to fit into two separate cultures (Mexican and American), and being neither, taught me that it’s okay to be proud of both my American and Cuban backgrounds, and, more precisely, to be proud of being both. Finally, this piece gave me the confidence to embrace my Cuban-ness more and to not be afraid of expressing that part of my identity, even if I’m not a traditional Cuban.

Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Opening Conversations: A Writer’s Reader, edited by Haivan V. Hoang et al. Hayden-McNeil, 2015, pp.34-45.

Share This Book