By Sarah Suhood
I was born on the island of Sri Lanka in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but I was also born Latina, thanks to my Guatemalan mom. Growing up bi-racial, I experienced the casual identity crisis many immigrants feel. I’ve lived in the states since I was five, so am I American? We make tamales for Christmas, so am I Latina? I don’t eat pork since my dad is Muslim, does that make me more South Asian? It was only in the last couple of years that I began to understand and embrace that I am all of the above.
With the rise of the “no sabo” kids in social media, we are seeing a beautiful move to embrace the second and third generation Latin-Americans. Both earlier and current generations faced much discrimination for having accents or not speaking English “well enough.” I remember my ESL (English as a Second language) teacher telling my mother in the 1st grade not to speak Spanish to me or I’d jeopardize my English skills. Then later in high school, I was told it was “such a waste” that I couldn’t speak Spanish and that my parents should have taught me. I couldn’t quite understand what exactly was expected of me. I found there tends to be an image of the “right” kind of immigrant.
I endeavored to learn Spanish and took AP Spanish in high school. I minored in Spanish Language & Culture during my undergraduate degree and even studied abroad in Spain. I participated in service trips to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. All of this in an effort to feel more connected to my Latina culture. I’m embarrassed to admit I found myself judging others for not learning Spanish themselves and thought them to be less Latino since they didn’t put in the effort to learn Spanish.
I still found myself self-conscious about my accent, but I realized in my time working as a Nurse Tech prior to medical school that most Latino patients didn’t care. Instead, they seemed grateful and relieved to see someone that looked like them, someone that sounded like them. A patient told me, “Mija, no te preocupes por tu acento. Todavía serías Latina aunque no pudieras hablar español. Solo estoy feliz que alguien me entiende.” (Translation: my daughter, don’t worry about your accent. You would still be Latina even if you didn’t speak Spanish. I’m just happy somebody understands me.)
It was this conversation that was a catalyst for a lot of self-growth. I realized I was very privileged to have the opportunity to learn Spanish in university and study abroad to further my command of the language. I was privileged enough to be able to talk on the phone with my grandparents and mother and practice my Spanish. I was privileged enough to have access to fun apps and websites to further perfect my vocabulary. I was already enough.
I didn’t need to prove to anyone that I was “Latina enough.” Aside from being a part of my identity, it was also a tool for me to better serve my patients – to help someone else feel heard. This connection matters more than if you can conjugate a verb in “preterito”.
So, whether you are born and raised in Latin America, immigrated to the states yourself, a fourth generation Chicano, or whether you speak ‘Spanglish’ or know how to use “vosotros”: Be brave and be that advocate for your Latino patients. You are Latino enough.
Sarah Suhood is an OMS-III at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine. After living in Sri Lanka, she lived in Houston, Texas, then moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for most of her adolescence. While attending USF in Tampa, FL for her undergraduate and master’s degrees she worked as Nurse Tech at the Advent Health Tampa Mother & Baby/Gynecology Unit on night shifts. An Health Professional Scholarship Program recipient, she was commissioned as a 2LT in the U.S. Air Force when starting medical school. She hopes to advocate for patients of color both within the military and civilian sectors in the future.