You are insulting my father when you ask why I don't speak spanish

I don't look very Puerto Rican. As a matter of fact, I look exactly like my mother, who is an Irish and Eastern European Catholic Jew (yeah, wrap your head around that one for a second. Then add 50% Puerto Rican to it and you can see why my boyfriend has grey hair). But my last name gives me away every time. Rivera is like Smith to Latinos.

First comes the disbelief: "You're Puerto Rican?"--shock from Latinos and non-Latinos alike. I usually make a joke about only my bottom half being Puerto Rican and everyone laughs. Then comes--and I dread this--"Do you speak Spanish?"

The answer is no, and the reactions to that news are almost always offensive.


Most non-Hispanics are almost a little relieved, like "oh, ok, you are who I thought you were." Latinos on the other hand, well, they almost always insult my father without knowing it. They always want to know why I don't speak Spanish, what happened. The disappointment is clear, most especially when the first response is, "well, that's OK". Yeah I know it is OK, and so did my father.

The assumption on the other end is that either my father is lazy or he isn't proud of who he is--and by the way I've had plenty of complete strangers tell me so, as if it was OK. Neither is the case. This is a man who will only get on a plane to go to Puerto Rico because it is the only place worth going and who once worked an 8 hours shift standing on his broken foot after he dropped a sledge hammer on it. His identity is clear, to me and to others, and always has been. But he made a parenting decision that a lot of Latinos of a certain generation made.

My father came to New York when he was 5 years old and he spoke only Spanish at home until he went to school. At school, he was labeled dumb because he didn't speak English and treated so horribly by the teachers--there were no ESL classes in the early 1950's--that it always stayed with him and he vowed the same wouldn't happen to us.

My grandfather didn't move his family to New York for no reason. He wanted them to have more opportunity and my father wanted the same. For him, the best thing he could do for us was to raise us as to speak English. He was also, in his own way, trying to respect my mother and her authority in our lives. He once told me he didn't think it was right that we would speak a language my mother couldn't. And to be honest, he hates Spanglish. When his nephews speak Spanglish, it just annoys him. Like really makes him crazy.

It is a regret he has now. But that doesn't mean it is ok to just tell me he was wrong. I don't tell you your parents were wrong to teach you to be Democrats or Republicans. He did what was right for his family at the time. He is a good person and the best father he knew how to be and he may not have taught me to "hablar en español", but he did teach me that I was Latino and that we stick to together.

Did your parents teach you to speak Spanish? Are you teaching your kids?