Famed gymnast Laurie Hernandez is unstoppable. At 16-years old, she was the youngest gymnast (and one of the few Latinx athletes) to go to Rio with #TeamUSA to compete in the Olympics, sprung back from a knee injury earlier this year by placing in third at Women’s P&G Gymnastics Championships, and boasts an impressive collection of medals. Despite her impressive career, there is just one area where the young Latinx athlete draws severe public criticism: her “authenticity” as a Puerto Rican.
In an piece penned by Sarina Morales at The Undefeated, the journalist recalls an interview in which she asked what backlash Hernandez experienced since becoming the first Latinx born woman and first Puerto Rican woman to compete with Team USA since 1984.
“Well, there was one where — ’cause I don’t speak Spanish. I mean — my mom didn’t really teach me Spanish when I was younger. She wanted to make sure that my English was perfect. Because she had told me once when she was learning language arts she was confusing the Spanish with the English. And she said, ‘I just wanted you to have perfect grammar.’ And — I have perfect grammar,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez then disclosed to Morales that she was criticized for not speaking Spanish, and the tone of the criticism was, in her words, “fake Puerto Rican.”
“The unfortunate reality for Hispanics in the United States is that our identity is constantly being measured by standards that have nothing to do with cultural reality,” Morales explained. “The dividing factor here is language. As a kid, my dad was made fun of for not speaking English when he came to New York from Puerto Rico with my grandparents. So for my father, his intention in raising me and my sister was to make sure that wouldn’t happen to us.”
Although Spanish itself is a colonial language forced upon the Indigenous and African populations in the Americas, it became a distinct marker of difference as immigration to the United States flourished in the 1920s, particularly from Puerto Rico, which is still in a colonial state.
Assimilation into American culture was necessary for access and acceptance, particularly for English as second-language speakers. Being able to speak Spanish is traditionally a way for immigrants and their descendants to maintain their cultural connection to their homeland as well as challenge the dominance of the English language in America. Young Latinx millennials find themselves in vulnerable positions, due to the fact that being U.S.-born, they are never fully seen as citizens or integrated into the fabric of America.
The additive of Hernandez being a woman further adds dimension to Hernandez’s chastisement; black and Latinx women are unduly placed under harsher scrutiny for their bodies and representations of their communities. As a group, they are expected to be the carriers of culture, especially mocked if they deviate from what are considered to be cultural norms. Fellow Olympic teammate Gabrielle Douglas was harassed for being un-American after not putting her hand over her heart, her hair, and other aspects of her physical appearance.
While embracing Spanish has become an act of resistance in response to assimilation, Morales urges the audience to widen their perceptions of Puerto Rican identity within the context of U.S. history and expand the narrative of what it means to be a Latinx woman in today’s society.
“There’s nothing fake about Hernandez. She’s as real as that gold medal around her neck.”