Identities: Lo Siento but Yo No Sabo: The unstereotypical Latina navigating through her culture
There is no monolith to being Latina
I was 18 years old, walking through the streets of Harlem with my mother. We had just finished touring Columbia University — a microcosm of different identities, cultures and languages housed in the urban campus. I walked past a bunch of people, many of them speaking different languages, even employing a form of fluidity as they switched between English and a second language.
I am not unaccustomed to multilingualism: I was raised in a Haitian immigrant household where English, French and Creole were frequently traded in sentences. As a child, I was told to “chita” (sit) in church, then taught the French alphabet at home and instructed in English at school.
At 19, I’m a freshman in college taking both an advanced French class and the freshman college writing intensive class. My multicultural background is impressive to most, but in the last year, I’ve felt as if there was a part of my identity that makes me different from the rest:
I’m a Latina who doesn’t speak Spanish.
In the Latino community, those who don’t speak Spanish are the target of both ridicule and jokes. They are referred to as “no sabo kids,” a phrase those who frequent “LatinoTok” on TikTok or other social media have become accustomed to. In some ways, it’s a funny joke, but at the same time, it boils back to a deeper issue of colonial sentiments of who is and isn’t a Latina.
In late January, I was invited to be a distinguished plenary speaker at the National Collegiate Research Conference at Harvard University. I presented my original research entitled, “The Conquest of the Latinidad: Historical and Contemporary Colorism in Hispaniola.” I sought to analyze how European colonial systems impacted Haiti and the Dominican Republic in modernity, and the results were astounding: Haitians historically have not been considered Latino, despite being Caribbeans from a romance-language-speaking country.
People often mistake the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino.” Hispanic refers to individuals from a Spanish-speaking country, such as Spain or Colombia, while Latino refers to individuals from a romance-language-speaking country in the Americas, such as Haiti and Brazil. Both Brazilians and Haitians typically do not speak Spanish, and both of these nations are primarily of African descent. In Brazil alone, 56 percent of the population, or about 120 million people, are Afro-Brazilian. In many ways, the ties between an Afro-Latino identity and the denial of Latino identity are a result of colonialism.
The Spanish imposed a caste system known as Las Castas in Latin America. When Christopher Columbus arrived in Hispaniola in 1492, the island was solely inhabited by the Indigenous Taíno people. Within the next few centuries, Hispaniola would become a microcosm of Latin America — one occupied by Black, European, Indigenous and mixed-race identities. Las Castas sought to subjugate those who were not European through a socio-racial hierarchy. Contemporarily, there is a concept of Ladinization, or the mixed race Latino identity, but this typically refers to the Indigenous and mestizo aspect of Latino culture — not the Black one, erasing the African influence and history on Latin America.
So what about the “no sabo” kids, the ones unable to speak Spanish? Although one may argue that to know Spanish is to be Latina, this phrase is inherently problematic. Spanish, Portuguese and French were the languages of the colonizers, forcibly imposed on Latin America. What about those speaking Indigenous dialects or creoles or pidgin languages? There is a depth to being Latina. As a Haitian woman, I have grown up seeing the strength of the Latina women around me. My maternal grandmother and her sisters immigrated from Haiti to the United States for a better life for future generations. My life, and I, would not exist if not for the contributions of Latina women.
To be Latina extends beyond the language: it is culture, a history, a way of life. There is no monolith to being Latina — there is merely one’s own relationship with their identity. For me, being Latina means educating fellow Latinos on how to strengthen our community rather than divide it. For others, being Latina can be a political and cultural movement, like the Chicana women reclaiming their identity as a form of empowerment.
I will never apologize for my Latina identity, despite my inability to speak Spanish.
Being Latina in the 21st century is complicated and messy, but it is also beautiful and an identity full of strength.
When I think of being a Latina woman, I am reminded of the strength in beauty. When I was a child, I would watch my mother apply makeup in awe. I am 19 now, speaking at national research conferences with nails and hair deemed “ghetto” a mere decade ago. To be Latina means reclaiming your identity and refusing to let anyone take it from you.
Sophia Joseph is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs.