Saturday, November 10, 2012

Nope, I Am “Not” Latino!

One Friday evening, while vacationing in Quito, Ecuador, I jumped into a cab for a 30 minute ride back to my hotel on the other side of town. The cab driver asked me if I was from a Spanish-speaking country in the Caribbean. I simply said no, I'm from the United States of America. He never suspected as such listening to my Spanish, which he felt has a Caribbean accent.

While most people look at me and simply assume that I'm African-American (and I am), I often get questioned about my ethnicity. Co-workers thought I was Cuban just because I interpreted for a couple of Spanish speakers, and went to Cuba (legally) on vacation. One day, at a bus stop in the Spanish-speaking Fruitvale District of Oakland, I casually struck up a Spanish-speaking conversation with a woman also waiting for a bus. Her immediate response was, ¡ayyy Cubano (oh, you're Cuban)! Many Latin-American people, who hear me speak Spanish, ask me if I'm from Puerto Rico or Cuba (two Caribbean countries).

It never seems to occur to anyone that I'm taking the time and the energy to learn to learn to speak the language. People feel that I must be a native speaker. The truth of the matter is that my Spanish is far from perfect; I'm still learning, which is one of the reasons I travel to countries where I'm forced to speak Spanish only and can't fall back on my English, even if I wanted to. Like the evening I was in a restaurant, and was so upset at the service that I almost forgot my Spanish as I demanded to speak with the manager. I was disappointed when the manager told me that he didn't speak English. I had no other choice but to calm down and register my complaint in Spanish, and the service immediately got better.

One of my former supervisors at work stated on my performance evaluation that I'm bi-cultural because of the way I interact with Spanish-speaking immigrants, travel to Latin-American countries, and listen to various genres of Latin-American music. In sports, I was a sentimental fan of Ecuador's predominately Black 2006 Word Cup soccer team, and a fan of the historically Black “Alianza Lima” soccer team in Lima, Perú.

One day in Lima, I was walking down the street wearing a t-shirt representing Chincha, a province in Southern Perú with a large Black population. A Black security officer came over to me excited, shaking my hand, smiling, and telling me that he too is from Chincha. I didn't get past two words before he burst out laughing, shook his head, and told me, dude, you're not from Chincha, you're from another country! My foreign accent gave me away. However, he was so surprised when I told him that I'm African-American. A lot of Peruvians I met thought that I was either from Brazil or Panamá, two nearby countries, or from Puerto Rico or Cuba, two Caribbean countries.

When I was in Cuba, almost everyone assumed that I too am Cuban until I opened my mouth. Again, my foreign accent was a dead giveaway. As much as I wanted to fake a Cuban accent to try to fit in, that was way over my head. One day, I was walking through a housing project in Havana, and as I passed by a guy, I greeted him with, Qué Bolá, Asere, a Cuban equivalent of what's up, bro. His eyes got big, indicating that he knew I was not from around there. Many Latinos I talk to here in the US tell me that my Spanish sounds Puerto Rican. A woman directly from the island of Puerto Rico told me that I sound more like a Nuyorican, ie., a New York Puerto Rican. Now, that makes sense because I grew up very close to Spanish Harlem in New York City, which was predominately Puerto Rican.  I'm now a transplanted New Yorker living in Oakland, CA..


  1. I love this. I deal with the exact same thing you dealt with in Ecuador. I too am an African American man I am in my early 20's. A friend and I decided to move to Panama in 2011 to learn spanish and put together a group with local Black Panameños, and we succeeded, when i came back speaking spanish I noticed 2 things. The latinos in the states were more accepting and I learned more about the individual countries. African Americans were either very surprised and amazed or looked at me as a traitor for simply trying to better myself. whatever, I love the blog, I'm so glad i stumbled on this, it so fits into the Negros Americanos movement that we started in Pananama, hopefully we can stay in touch I like to touch base with like minded individuals

  2. Here in the Washington DC area the construction field is dominated by Latinos, especially Latinos from El Salvador. I have noticed that when they learn that I can speak their language, they treat me differently than they do other African Americans. Learning languages breaks down barriers.

  3. I'm African American in my mid twenties and currently learning Spanish. I always get mistaken for a Puerto Rican or a Dominican. I even had a young lady argue with me Because she swore I was Dominican. That was in New Jersey, here in Texas they think I'm Puerto Rican(technically I am but thats a long story). At my last job every Latino dubbed me the "smart black guy" cause I picked up basic Spanish fast. When they realized I was getting it they treated me so different it almost felt like I got inducted to a club. It's crazy how different Latinos treat us when they think we are smart enough to speak their language.

  4. I am a 30 year old black American woman, currently vacationing in Peru. I learned a lot of Spanish in school in Los Angeles from pre-school all the way to high school, but never really using it outside of class much, I forgot. I've been in Peru about 5 days now and it has ALL come back! Many Peruvians swear that I, too, am from Cuba or Puerto Rico. I must admit that it is nice to travel to places where I fit in more... (traveling through Eastern Europe was NOT as easy). I plan to be more aggressive with teaching myself Spanish now that it has opened up a wide new world for me! I just must ask, what techniques have you used throughout the years to learn more? I'm finding that my Spanish, while nowhere near fluent, is more than enough for me to communicate any and everything I need in Spanish speaking countries, therefore I don't have a real incentive to learn more. It's "good enough". But I want to be excellent! How?

    1. Hi Allie,
      Thank you for joining this site. While in Perú, I'd like to encourage you to visit my extended family in El Carmen in the Province of Chincha, the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture. For more information, e-mail me at or friend me on Facebook--W Bill Smith. On Facebook, I'm wearing a suit with a panama hat.

      To answer your question about what I'm doing to keep my Spanish up, I'm still teaching myself out of books and CDs. I bought an advanced series off Unlike you, I never had much of formal training in school. I've done most of my learning my interacting with monolingual Spanish speakers as much as I can. For example on my last job as an employment counselor, I had a lot of monolingual Spanish-speaking clients, and hardly a day went by without my speaking some Spanish.


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