Picture of encyclopaedia describing the words loss, lost and lot.

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Yo no sabo

The struggle of not being able to speak Spanish as a Latinx.

“Shut up, dude! You don’t even speak Spanish, freakin’ no sabo.”

By all accounts, it is true. He is a no sabo kid.

“Yo no sabo” means “I don’t know” in Spanish. Only it’s conjugated in a clunky way, grammatically incorrect. More like saying “I not knowing,” instead of “I don’t know,” actually.  

Hispanics use it to insult other Hispanics⁠—the ones who don’t speak Spanish. The Mexicans that grew up in the United States, learning English and only English.

Because see, Hispanic—Hispano, Hispanohablante— means “belonging to a country or culture in the Spanish-speaking Americas.” He remembers seeing that in some encyclopedia. It was part of library research for a project on family trees.

Pobrecito, ni les va a poder hablar,” says one of the other boys during lunchtime. He doesn’t mean it though when he says pobrecito—“poor thing”—and Antonio can tell because all the boy’s friends start cackling when he says it. 

It’s a blessing and a curse thinks Antonio. The whole not speaking Spanish thing. On one hand, it’s cruel what his parents did. They didn’t teach him their language, and now he’s forced to face the humiliation of not knowing like it’s his fault. Like he would somehow choose this for himself. On the other hand… maybe he’s better off not knowing whatever else those boys are laughing about during class. 

But he knows he’s the punchline.

He may be no sabo, but he’s not stupid.

Ay, Toñito, habla bien!” his grandma rasps one day, a desperate plea to her grandson to please speak Spanish properly, as if it were something he could just switch on. 

Antonio doesn’t speak for the rest of the visit.

Hispanic means Spanish-speaking. That’s what the encyclopedia said. How can you be Hispanic when you don’t speak Spanish? It’s not proper, it’s not right, it’s a disgrace. Way to honour the culture, Antonio would sometimes reprimand himself in his brain, an echo of the comments thrown his way.

“You’re supposed to be the teachers,” he tells his mom one day, fed up. Maestros. Teachers. He knew that one. But they didn’t teach him, and that was the problem. Because now the words land heavy on his tongue, awkward in his throat, and the r’s don’t roll in the way they’re supposed to.

“You’re my teacher, and you didn’t teach me.”

“Oh, Toñito,” says his mom, wrapping her son in that familiar, motherly embrace.

Quietly, she thinks of the little girl translating tabloids for her mother in the grocery check out line, and of the melty old American man who grunts “speak English!” She thinks of the men in suits and ties at government offices, laughing at the way the ageing man in a baseball cap pronounces “citizen”, “zee tee sen.” She thinks of late nights, studying, practising, assimilating.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, and she means it. Because in all her desperate attempts to keep her son from feeling so isolated as she had felt not speaking English, she was inadvertently creating an inverse image of her own dilemma. 

“Well,” he tells her slowly, “it’s not too late.” To celebrate, to learn, to teach. He hugs his mom tightly, and thinks about that family tree project, about the encyclopedia, and about the other Mexican boys at school, laughing amongst themselves.

And quietly the no sabo kid decides he forgives them all.

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