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Bicultural Latinos embrace dual identities, shun pressure to assimilate

Many first-generation Latinos assimilated into American culture as a matter of survival. But many of their children see themselves as 100% American — and 100% Latino.
Image: Joanna Hausmann, Ricardo Sebastian and Sage Dolan Sandrino.
Joanna Hausmann, Ricardo Sebastian and Sage Dolan-Sandrino have worked to harness their bilingual and bicultural heritage.Don Emmert; Santiago Felipe; Dee Harper / AFP - Getty; NBC News

There are some things bicultural children get: speaking two languages, struggling to translate certain expressions and constantly having to answer, “But where are you really from?”

Then there's trying to convince Mom or Dad that a slumber party is a totally normal American custom for preteen girls — a sometimes unwinnable battle. 

Still, another reality for Latinos growing up in a bicultural household is the balancing act of assimilating into American culture while attempting to maintain a connection to their parents' Latin American roots.

For many Latinos who have immigrated to the U.S., assimilation into American culture is about blending — and for some, it's also about survival amid discrimination or outright racism.

But many younger Latinos, especially those born or primarily raised in the U.S., said they're rejecting this assimilation-for-survival narrative and reclaiming the full spectrum of their biculturalism — unapologetically embracing it in its many forms. 

"I think that my dad saw not teaching me Spanish as something that ultimately would make my life easier because of the way that he was perceived," said artist and community leader Sage Dolan-Sandrino about her Afro Cuban immigrant father.

“My dad really became aware of the differences that being not only a Black man in America, but a Spanish-speaking Black man would have on his life,” Dolan-Sandrino said. “So when he and my mom had me, a trans and mixed Black child, it caused my father to not teach me Spanish out of what I would understand as a trauma response.”

Dolan-Sandrino said though she understands her dad's decision to forgo teaching her and speaking to her in Spanish, she sees it as a missed opportunity.

"I think that my life would be so much more full and so much richer and I would have had been able to have conversations with my grandmother and learn so much about my family and my history," Dolan-Sandrino said. "And although that’s the unfortunate truth, I have to be radically aware of the reasons that my father made that decision."

Dolan-Sandrino is not alone in her awareness nor in her desire to connect more fully with her Afro Cuban heritage. According to Kantar Consulting’s 2018 Monitor study, a comprehensive analysis of the U.S. consumer market, 92 percent of Hispanics believe that living in the U.S. while maintaining a connection to the culture of their home country is natural.

To put it simply, for some Latinos, the idea of total cultural assimilation is becoming foreign. 

Comedian and writer Joanna Hausmann can attest to the role that highlighting her bicultural Venezuelan American identity has had in elevating her career.

"My career really took off," she said, "when I started creating videos on the internet for people like me, which were people that were 100 percent American, but also 100 percent Latino."

A term for people like Hausmann — 200 percenters — was established by Telemundo several years ago to refer to bilingual Latinos who identify as both American and Latino, easily jumping between those cultures and languages. NBC News and Telemundo are part of NBCUniversal.

"I came from the comedy world where being called Connor and being from Connecticut was the norm, and I saw myself hiding the complexities of my identity. Then I started making content online about my very specific experience as a Venezuelan American," Hausmann said. "I was shocked to see the positive reactions not only from Venezuelans, but from people from everywhere. ... That’s when I realized that identity isn’t something to hide; it’s actually a strength in creating content and creating comedy."

Hausmann co-hosts a podcast with fellow comedian Jenny Lorenzo called Hyphenated that explores living in the hyphen that connects American and Latino culture. 

A poll of Latinas released Thursday by Telemundo found that 62 percent of them considered themselves 200 percenters.

Still, many U.S.-based Latinos are criticized for not assimilating enough —as seen in multiple viral videos where they're berated by strangers for speaking Spanish.

Other Latinos have been criticized for assimilating too much — and not being fully bilingual, for example.

"I was raised in an English-speaking household and a very Americanized family," Ricardo Sebastián, the Mexican American co-founder of New York City talent agency Arraygency, said. "When I first embarked on learning Spanish in high school, I was so — and still am — very self-conscious of the fact that I have an American accent."

"And interestingly enough, sometimes I feel like I’ve experienced more discrimination from Hispanic people than I have for my gender identity as nonbinary," Sebastián said. "There’s like this weird expectation to be completely representative of your culture in a country where you’re also discriminated against for representing your culture."

Sebastián co-founded Arraygency with "Pose" star Jason Rodriguez specifically to provide representation and generate opportunities for people of color and queer and trans people within the entertainment industry.

'Not from here, nor from there'

Sebastián's experience, like so many others, can be summed up by the Spanish-language expression, "Ni de aquí, ni de allá," which means, "Not from here, nor from there." It's a dichotomy that, while worn as a badge of honor by some Latinos, serves to invalidate the bicultural experience for others.

"I used to think to myself, 'Can I be a Cuban woman if I’m a trans woman, if I’m a queer woman, if I don’t speak Spanish?'" Dolan-Sandrino said. "And the truth is, yes, because that is where I come from. That is what my history is. That is who my family is. I am the embodiment of a Cuban woman that exists at the intersections of my identity."

While not every bicultural experience involves speaking two languages — especially for second- and third-generation Hispanics — interest in speaking Spanish is on the rise, which is further evidence of changing demographics.

In the 2020 census, over 20 million Latinos identified with more than one race, compared to just 3 million in 2010. According to the Pew Research Center, one factor could be changes in the census form that made it easier to identify with multiple races.

Acknowledging assimilation — but shunning it

Assimilation, code-switching and decisions to downplay cultural identity — from not speaking the family’s native language to not being vocal about own’s heritage — have been and will continue to be a way for immigrant families, many of them Latino, to adapt to life in the U.S.

For some, it's a way to try to shield themselves and their families from racism, prejudicial attitudes or even violence.

But Latinos account for over half of the nation's population growth in the last decade, and bicultural Hispanics are shaping American culture, politics and entertainment.

“I think people are questioning, what are we assimilating to?” Hausmann said.

Ultimately, many millennials and Gen Z Americans are rejecting the notion that the only path toward being authentically American is by watering down all the parts of themselves that represent their bicultural identity.

As the influence of Latino biculturalism evolves in the U.S., a more accurate term may be, "Somos de aquí y de allá," meaning, "We are from here and from there."

As Hausmann put it, there isn't one way to be an American, a move away from the time when everyone on TV looked a certain way.

"That’s changing and evolving — I do believe a lot of it has to do with the democratization of content," she said. "You have thousands of people around the world creating stuff that reflects who they are, that reflects a different type of American and a different type of identity, and people feel connected and related to that."

"I think it’s the breaking down of the America we thought existed," Hausmann said, "to the real America that exists today."

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