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I thought I wasn't 'Hispanic enough' because I don't speak Spanish. I was wrong.

One TODAY staffer reflects on her journey to connect with her heritage and learn the language her mother and grandparents speak.
Illustration of woman in the middle of moving speech bubbles
I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish but as an adult, I’ve been learning the language and reconnecting with a part of my family’s heritage.Katty Huertas / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy, and pride. We are highlighting Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos, and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

When I tell people I’m Hispanic, they usually respond: “Really? Do you even speak Spanish?” With just a few words based on an immediate reaction, my sense of identity takes a major blow.

I typically take a deep breath and explain that I'm half Cuban, one-quarter Italian and one-quarter Irish. I explain that although my mom speaks both Spanish and English, Spanish simply wasn’t spoken in my home or in the overwhelmingly white town where I grew up. If you’re lucky, I might even reveal how I feel deeply connected to the Cuban side of my family because my grandparents immigrated to New York City from Cuba. This is quite a mouthful, and usually way too much information for someone I may have just met, so I usually stick with the short version of my response: “I’m working on it.”

My family is close-knit. Pictured are my grandparents and mom with our family and friends in New York City's Washington Heights in the 1970s.Courtesy Cassidy McKenna

It’s extremely disheartening to not know the language that my mother and grandparents speak. It feels like a gut punch to my heritage and a constant reminder of the cultural differences between me and my ancestors. It has also made me debate where I fit in and whether or not I'm "Hispanic enough."

Stories of my family’s life in Cuba keep me motivated to learn more about my culture and the island's language and history. One of my biggest motivators is my grandfather. He was a storyteller, a book lover and one of the kindest souls you’d ever meet. His spirit stays with me as I slowly unravel all of the things that make me who I am — including this journey to speak Spanish.

My grandfather, Elio Herrera, pictured with a model in Havana in the 1950s. He was approached and asked to take this photo, which he claimed later became early advertising for Pan American Airways. He saw this photo many years later in a doctor's office and exclaimed, "That's me!"Courtesy Cassidy McKenna

Now that I’m a bit older and thanks to a yearlong pandemic, I’ve taken the time to reflect and prioritize my goal to speak fluent Spanish. I took Spanish in school and was comfortable reading and writing the language. But during college, I abandoned my progress. I’m now happy to report that after six months of learning, I’m more conversational than I have ever been. More importantly, I realized that I’m not doing this because I was forced to in school. I’m learning Spanish for me.

But this growth is accompanied by a lot of anxiety and self-doubt. After listening to interviews and stories of other language learners, I now know this uncomfortable feeling is not a unique one.

Connecting with others who have also experienced difficulty fitting in with their culture and learning a language is comforting. I chatted with Maya Murillo, whose hilariously relatable YouTube and TikTok videos always cheer me up. When asked about her experience being a Mexican-American who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, but who has now learned the language to a point where she feels comfortable with it, Murillo responded, “My progress is whatever I want it to be. I’m comfortable speaking (Spanish) with my grandmother, and that was one of my biggest life goals.”

“Self-acceptance is so important throughout anybody’s journey in learning anything that is so closely tied to your identity.”

Maya Murillo

Murillo went on to explain that although she’s still learning, she doesn’t let people determine how she feels about her progress or her identity. “I’m not fully bilingual, I’m not fully fluent, but I feel OK,” says Murillo. “Self-acceptance is so important throughout anybody’s journey in learning anything that is so closely tied to your identity.”

Well said, Maya. Well said.

With that, the biggest lesson I’ve learned throughout this journey is that knowing or not knowing a language does not disconnect you from your family, your culture or your identity. Learning Spanish has been such a fruitful, albeit difficult, experience, and I can’t wait to continue to connect with my family and other people through the language. And that’s all that matters.

Related:

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month”, hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, September 29th at 12:30p, 4:30p and 8:30p at TODAY.com/allday.