What Mamita leaves behind: Unlearned language and fraught ethnic identity as a white, "no sabo kid"

Navigating a grey area between racial privilege and ethnic distance

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published October 10, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Grandmother and grandchild walking hand in hand (Getty Images/Doable)
Grandmother and grandchild walking hand in hand (Getty Images/Doable)

For most of my life, I’ve grown up with only one grandparent. This isn’t a particularly unique experience — like many other 20-somethings, the lack of ancestral presence in my life was owing to a combination of estrangement and premature deaths.

I was terrified of Spanish, electing to take Latin in high school and Dutch in college, refusing to confront that part of my identity.

The grandparent I did have, and gratefully still do, is my maternal grandmother. A wisp of a woman who lived to serve the Lord and love the people in her life with every fiber of her being, my grandmother came to the United States as many Hispanic immigrants do: only speaking Spanish. She met my grandfather, an Italian immigrant from Sicily who fought for the U.S. in World War II, in her hometown of Riberalta, where the rivers Beni and Madre de Dios converge. It’s a mythic village near the northwestern corner of Bolivia, not far from the Brazilian border, at the heart of the Amazon Basin — tropical lowlands where spiders are the size of dinner plates and the air hangs heavy with water vapor. 

Eventually, my grandparents would settle in Bayonne, New Jersey, an urban city situated on a peninsula between Newark Bay to the west, Kill Van Kull — a tidal strait — to the south, and New York City to the east. By the time my mother was born, sixth in a line of nine children, her older sisters had learned to navigate Bayonne’s predominantly white neighborhoods by suppressing their ethnicity. Don’t speak Spanish unless you’re at home. These instructions were soldered onto their minds from an early age, rules of the 1970s and '80s they were constantly reminded of through the discrimination they faced in their community, and the racial slurs hurled at them by peers. Their Latina names were chopped and shortened, molded into Westernized nicknames devoid of the proper pronunciation.

The lived experiences of my mother, aunts and uncles are largely why my nearly 30 cousins and I don’t speak Spanish today. Of course, there are exceptions. Two of my younger sisters, as well as some of my cousins, made the effort to learn it and learn it well. But I was terrified of Spanish, electing to take Latin in high school and Dutch in college, refusing to confront that part of my identity in a stumbling fashion, literally bereft of any palpable connection to the language. As the oldest of five children, I was, at least temporally speaking, closest to the deeply entrenched intergenerational trauma that came with my family’s Hispanic side. 

My mom had done the best she could, emotionally and mentally speaking, when my siblings and I were younger, often reading children’s stories to us in Spanish. I watched syrupy novelas with my grandmother and held her hands as I twirled to the Gipsy Kings, who often clattered from the hulking yellow boombox in her living room. And of course, Jesus was everywhere you looked. On birthdays, I was routinely gifted rosary beads and blue and white bottles of holy water shaped like Our Lady of Lourdes.

I have always felt as though my inability to speak Spanish has precluded me from being understood as a person of Hispanic descent.

My grandmother rarely cooked, outside of watery bowls of oatmeal, the occasional tray of beef and cheese empanadas or a plate of warm, wet plátanos. When I was a toddler, my ears could not cleave through her likely Indigenous accent, and I would simply reply “yes” when I didn’t know what she had said to me over the phone. It wasn’t until last fall, upon visiting a Bolivian restaurant in Queens, that I learned of api morado, the thick beverage of pulverized purple maize and sugar, made fragrant with cinnamon and cloves. Or that Bolivians have their own version of an empanada, a football-shaped pastry called a salteña, stuffed with spiced meat and the occasional hard-boiled egg. Hispanic heritage in my family was a sort of paradox, at once literally evinced in my grandmother and mom, but still always fumbling and far off, woven into the niche interstices of my life instead of the everyday.

My identity is one that is largely of privilege — I am white. I will never have to cope with the same racially inflected traumas my relatives did. But I am also a person of Hispanic origin. It’s an experience defined by deep-seated confusion that has left me feeling unmoored for most of my adult life. 

Living in a society consumed by identity politics and gatekeeping has only complicated things. Much of how we understand the world exists in stratified and hyperbolized extremes. How should we then account for those who occupy the liminal grey area, either overtly or quietly? The ability to speak Spanish, regardless of how Hispanic you are, is in many ways a sort of golden ticket to being accepted as such, a metric used to measure and validate one's Hispanic identity. I have always felt as though my inability to speak Spanish has precluded me from being understood as a person of Hispanic descent, an identity which, like any ethnic background, is inherently idiosyncratic and certainly not monolithic.

It has only become a recent phenomenon that “no sabo kids” like myself — young adults who grew up in Hispanic and Hispanic-adjacent households but were never formally taught Spanish due to discrimination their parents faced — have begun to push back against the policing of the language. Though I am not one of them, millions of Hispanic-identifying Gen-Zers have taken to TikTok and other social media platforms to redefine the once-denigrating term. “No sabo,” after all, is the improper way of saying “I don’t know” in Spanish, correctly said as “No sé.”

There are about 63 million Latinos in the United States, and no two people are Latino in the same way. It’s not language that makes you Latino,” Dr. David Hayes Bautista, professor and director at the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, told NBC.

These days, my grandmother uses a wheelchair at her senior living community in New Jersey, rendered essentially nonverbal from dementia. When she does speak, it’s soft and slight, amounting to nothing more than “Yes, dear?” or small Spanish phrases. 

I recently listened to a collection of voicemails I have from my grandmother, dating back to 2011: calls to wish me a happy birthday, to get in touch with my parents, to see what time I was picking her up for mass at our local parish back home. Her thick Bolivian accent, candied in kindness and love and once indiscernible to my tiny childhood ears, was now cloudless and clear. But it was also distant and strange, a voice I had not heard in the same capacity in many years; like waking up from the most vivid dream I’d ever had and feeling it slip away with each second that I became more conscious.

Last January, on her 84th birthday, my parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and I sang happy birthday in Spanish, passed around heavy slices of chocolate cake, and showered Mamita (one of my grandmother’s nicknames,) with new sweaters and jewelry. One of our family dogs, a large Great Pyrenees named Boo, licked her paper-thin hands as she stroked his ivory face, the only show of emotion we saw from her that day. I took photos of my grandmother with her children, trying in vain to get her to look at the camera. 

“Aquí, Mamita!”

I’ve started listening to those voicemails weekly, and though I don’t cry any less each time I hear the first, “Hola, Gigi!” I will continue to listen, maybe for the rest of my life. After all, it’s a way to preserve time, a microcosm of the only way I know how to connect with that part of who I am. 


By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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