Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.
Sara De La Cerda remembers the day in a mariachi music class at San Jose High. The instructor asked for a translation from English to Spanish. The U.S.-born Mexican American confidently raised her hand and answered in her best Spanish.
“All the kids started laughing because it didn’t translate,” she said. “I was kinda teased in high school for like, not knowing how to speak Spanish.”
Today, De La Cerda is considered a “no sabo kid” by fluent Spanish-speaking youth from Miami to San Jose. The term targets Americanized, English-dominant Latinos, young or old. It’s as if the Spanish speakers are accusing them of abandoning their culture by assimilating totally into a dominant American environment.
The phrase carries a comedic undertone because “no sabo” is ungrammatical. The correct phrase would be no se, or I don’t know. The origin of the phrase isn’t clear. It could have been a Mexican American or Puerto Rican from New York, answering “no sabo” to a question in Spanish.
For De La Cerda, now a senior at San Jose State University, the ridicule still stings. As a Latina, the experience in high school made her feel disconnected from her Latinidad and mariachi music.
No sabo has taken place in Latino culture and has made it much harder for Latinos who don’t speak Spanish to fit into the culture. The phrase may have been born in South Florida, grew in popularity on social media during the pandemic shutdown and migrated to Spanish-speaking communities across the country.
Within Latino communities, the tables have turned in the war of words over cultural identity.
This has been a developing trend over multiple generations. For example, U.S.-born Mexican Americans in Southern California used to deride all Mexican immigrants as tijuaneros, or people from Tijuana, Mexico. Mexican migrants retaliated with the term pochos, meaning discolored or faded.
Oscar Gomez, a counselor at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Hayward, has seen the no sabo battles play out at school.
“It makes them embarrassed to be at school,” he said about the targeted English-speaking students. He said his English-dominant students began to feel like outsiders.
About 74% of students at the middle school are Latino. Gomez said most of them are immigrants or first generation and speak Spanish fluently.
He has played the new card game Yo Sabo, created last year by Mexican-American college student Carlos Torres and sold online. After being known as a no sabo kid growing up, Torres decided to create the game to connect with his roots. The new game took off on social media, especially as it has become a play on the no sabo trend. Gomez sees the card game as a measure of Latino cultural identity.
However, not everyone experiences such pain from the no sabo bite.
“It wouldn’t affect me at all,” said Cuahcihuatl Trinidad. “Yeah, you know as a matter of fact, I think I’ll make a T- shirt like that.”
A self-described Chicana who does not speak Spanish fluently, she is director of programs at ConXion to Community, a social organization serving Latinx and Indigenous Native American communities.
Trinidad wishes she had learned Spanish, but she said she’s been perfectly fine without it. Trinidad said Spanish fluency isn’t all there is to her Mexican heritage. It’s an attitude she hopes all no sabo Latinos adopt.
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The debate recently erupted onto the pages of the Harvard Crimson, a student-run newspaper at the Ivy League school. Contributing writer Joseph W. Hernandez argued that no sabo kids still deserve their cultural identity because so many Latino families felt forced to emphasize English over Spanish.
“We lost our language as a result of forced assimilation,” he wrote.
Yesenia Guzman, who coordinates the Chicanx/Latinx Student Success Center at San Jose State, explains the conflict as a result of a colonial language — Spanish — replacing Nahuatl and other native Mexican tongues by force.
Trinidad would agree. She traces her Mexican identity to the Yaqui and Mexica tribes, and considers her native language to be Nahuatl, not Spanish.
“It’s sad what our own culture is doing to ourselves,” Trinidad said. “Culture is life. It’s our strength, you know, it’s our energy. It’s everything.”
Iris Sanchez is a student at Lincoln High School in San Jose.