GUEST POST: The Broken Spanish Speaker Radar in New York

PHOTO CREDIT: wikipedia.commons

Written by: Dallas Rico

I often wonder how Nuyoricans (a popular term for Puerto Ricans living in New York) and Dominicans determine whether or not someone speaks Spanish. Is it like a gaydar, but for Spanish-speakers. A year before I moved to New York, my cousin, who lived in Williamsburg at the time and who doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish, mentioned people would approach her almost every day and start speaking Spanish to her. It was so overbearing to the point where she’d avoid eye contact with anyone who looked Dominican or Puerto Rican, lest they strike a conversation. That’s one of the many things that got me excited about moving to the Big Apple. I’m a Spanish teacher and love to speak the language outside the classroom. The prospect of speaking Spanish every day was thrilling.

Unfortunately, when I got here I quickly learned that would not be the case. The moment I walk into an establishment, I’m immediately pegged as a non-Spanish speaker. For instance, I remember the look I got when I went to a Dominican barbershop last year. When I sat in an open chair, the barber asked one of his colleagues to translate for him. He didn’t even ask me if I spoke Spanish. He just assumed I didn’t. Even when he realized that I did he still tried to speak his broken English to me. What I don’t get is why the guy who was as black as midnight gets a pass, but I don’t. When he walked everyone greeted him in Spanish like they were homeboys. I just don’t understand. Is it my hair? The shape of my head? The way I walk? My breath? Can someone please explain this to me?!

Some people look entirely African American but they speak Spanish. It’s curious that the Nuyorican and Dominican communities feel so aggressively non-black. I believe they use language as a way to segregate themselves from the black community, as a way of saying, “you are not us,”despite our similar heritage. That’s right. Many Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are indeed black or mixed with black though they refuse to acknowledge it. They had slaves on those islands. Do your research. At any rate, language may serve as a comfortable barrier to deny blackness. Hey, I can’t be black. I speak Spanish. Black people don’t speak Spanish.

I miss the brotherhood I felt with my fellow Mexicans in Texas and California. Things were different there. The Mexican community felt so much more welcoming even though I definitely didn’t look like them. Though I’m black by blood, I also culturally identify as Mexican due to my intimacy with that community. It’s a part of who I am. It’s ironic because I can understand why they’d assume I don’t speak Spanish. Pretty much the majority of Spanish-speakers there are either Mexican or Salvadorian. So, it’s a shock when a person with African features speaks Spanish. Yet, when I spoke there people just went with it. I miss those days, man.

I had hoped the diversity of Latin American countries represented in New York would give people an open mind. We’ve got folks from places like Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and the Caribbean islands. (Did you know there are huge Afro-Latino communities all over South America? I watched a fascinating documentary on that subject) Spanish speakers come in all colors here. So, one shouldn’t assume someone’s linguistic ability. Alas, in a form of linguistic chauvinism, it seems I’ll forever be pegged as a non-Spanish speaker.

So, if you are a black Spanish speaker who plans to visit New York, curb you enthusiasm if you hope to practice Spanish. You may or may not get that opportunity. There’s really no way to tell. If you don’t happen to get accepted into the Spanish-Speakers Club, please hook me up with a recommendation.

Now, where will I get to speak Spanish if not NYC? Even when I visit Puerto Rico they speak to me in English. Also, many of my Latino friends here prefer to speak in English, so that’s a bust. I guess I’ll have to keep my Spanish in the classroom and during Skype sessions with friends abroad. I could always move to Mexico. ¡Qué lástima!



Dallas, who’s actually from Dallas, is a high school Spanish teacher and an aspriring novelist living in Brooklyn.  Look for his name on the New York Times Best-Sellers list one day.  Maybe. Hopefully.  Follow his (mis)adventures at @scandallas.


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3 thoughts on “GUEST POST: The Broken Spanish Speaker Radar in New York

  1. David Quiles says:

    I can’t say that I agree with your assessment of New York Puerto Ricans. We Puerto Ricans embrace our Spanish, Indian, and African (and a rainbow of others) heritage, more so than most Spanish speaking cultures. Here’s what I think is happening in your case- New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is extremely dense with so many different cultures. So there will always be this pause when someone that does not look like everyone else enters the room. That’s any ethic group. It happens to me all the time. I happen to have an appearance where it’s not easy to ascertain where I’m from. Sometimes people come to me and communicate in Spanish, sometimes they stare, trying to determine where I’m from, and sometimes I can’t get anyone to speak to me in Spanish. That’s New York City. However, I will say this- I just love it when I speak Spanish to a Non-Puerto Rican or Domincan “latinos” and then hear this. “Wow. You’re Puerto Rican? You speak so well..”

  2. caren says:

    Whenever I go to Washington Heights, where my aunt who speaks no spanish lives , everyone speaks to me in spanish. Try going there maybe?

  3. Keara Funchess Rodela says:

    I love your comment, “The Mexican community felt so much more welcoming even though I definitely didn’t look like them. Though I’m black by blood, I also culturally identify as Mexican due to my intimacy with that community. It’s a part of who I am.”

    You just verbalized ME! I’m so happy to know I’m not the only person out there who felt this way. Thank you for sharing your experience. =)

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