By 2050, the United States will be home to the most Spanish speakers in the world, according to the general secretary of the Association of Spanish Language Academies – Even so, there are many Latinos born and raised in the U.S. who are either not fluent, or don’t speak Spanish at all.
Historical Reasons for Lack of Fluency in Spanish
A common reason for the lack of fluency is simply due to parents not speaking Spanish to their children. There are various reasons why parents consciously choose not to pass their language onto the next generation. Those raised during the 1930′s and 40′s recall being forbidden from speaking Spanish at school, and being punished if they did. Due to racism during that time, even speaking Spanish in public was cause for being told to leave the area in some cases. Many who experienced this kind of discrimination didn’t teach Spanish to their children. In turn, these second generation Latino Americans were unable to teach it to their own children, even if they wanted to.
Some Latinos born and raised in the U.S. just never picked it up fluently, despite their parents best efforts to teach them, and so being insecure in their own skills, don’t speak it to their own children.
Another common reason given? – Concerns about English fluency. To many immigrants coming to the United States, English is the priority – English, in their eyes, is what will open doors of opportunity to their children, which were not open to them. It is the nature of most immigrants to look towards the future, but sometimes a piece of the past is lost in the process.
According to one study, “The grandchildren of immigrants are likely to speak only English. By the third generation, only 17% of Hispanics speak Spanish fluently, and by the fourth generation, it drops to 5%.” – (source: hispanic7.com)
Feelings of Insecurity and Judgment from Others
For U.S. Latinos, not speaking Spanish is often a source of insecurity or even shame. Lacking Spanish fluency brings with it judgment from other Latinos in the community as well as a loss of opportunity.
“I wish I was fluent [but] I am only proficient,” said Andria Morales “…Not speaking fluently has made me ineligible for opportunities that call for someone who is bilingual. It has made it difficult to communicate with fluent speakers… I never really fit in well with the Latina crowd because of my language issue. I was once invited for a holiday party to a Rican family’s house…[A woman there] made me feel like I wasn’t really Latina by insisting on unwrapping a pastele for me because she didn’t think I would know how even though I told her I grew up eating them. I remarked at how I was so grateful for the food which I don’t get to eat all the time and she asked me why I didn’t know how to cook. I told her my grandmother died when I was little and my mom was always working and she said “or you didn’t have any interest.”” – Andria Morales (Puerto Rican descent) / AreYouMyOther.com
“I have had other Latinos refer to me as being “fake” and…deliberately speak in Spanish to leave me out of conversations.” – says Gabrielle (Puerto Rican descent) / From-The-Frontline.com
Laura Esquer, a Graphic Designer from Los Angeles and U.S. born Latina of Mexican descent, says that to this day, even though her mother speaks to her in Spanish, she answers in English. “I am very proud of my heritage and I make that known. Even though I can not speak Spanish fluently, I am able to read and understand it fluently…I have sometimes been teased as being “white washed” and “white Mexican.” It didn’t offend me. Other people’s opinions have little effect on me. I know who I am.”
Even Celebrities Are Not Immune to Judgment
Many Latina celebrities in the U.S. struggle with not being fluent in Spanish and even the famous are not immune to judgment from the Latino community.
Mexican-American Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla started out singing in both Spanish and English, while not fully understanding the words of the Spanish songs. As her popularity grew beyond Texas and into Latin America, she decided she needed to be able to speak Spanish. It was only after several years that she became fluent enough to handle the press by herself.
Boricua, Jennifer Lopez, who played the part of “Selena” in the movie about her life, has also faced criticism for her lack of Spanish skills. In an interview with Henri Béhar, she’s quoted as saying, “Another controversy came up in the Latin press about the fact that I didn’t speak very good Spanish – which Selena didn’t either! So I felt some of that pressure at the beginning.”
Another Selena, Disney sweetheart Selena Gomez who is of Mexican-descent, has never claimed to be fluent and has always been very honest about her Spanish speaking skills. In an interview with Lee Hernandez of Latina magazine, Gomez said, “I practice it, but I can understand it better than I can speak it…In a lot of my interviews that I did recently, they would speak to me in Spanish and I would answer back in English. They were like ‘You pick it up so easily,’ but I don’t want to say it in Spanish because I’d be embarrassed if I mess something up.”
Selena Gomez also expressed the desire to become fluent, saying, “I really want to get Rosetta Stone, because I really need to learn my language.”
Speaking Spanish is Not A Requirement to Be “Latina”
Some Latinas are a little more defiant when their lack of fluency is brought up. Actress Jessica Alba’s father is second generation Mexican-American but she was never taught to speak Spanish. When Latina magazine’s Monica Herrera asked Alba how she felt about critics who judged her for not speaking the language, Alba responded, “No one gives Cameron Diaz a hard time for not speaking Spanish. Her dad’s Cuban, and I was telling her I feel so bad because everyone is so nasty to me for not speaking Spanish.” Diaz reportedly told Alba, “I don’t speak Spanish! I barely speak English!”
Alba also shared a conversation with Latina magazine that she had with actress Rosario Dawson, an actress of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent. Dawson told Alba that she doesn’t speak Spanish either.
In the end, the voices of those I spoke to, and the quotes from famous Latinas I picked up in interviews seemed to be saying the same thing:
I am proud of my Latino heritage and I have a desire to learn Spanish, but in the meantime, don’t judge me.
“I think being Latina is about having pride in your heritage. Although I am not a fluent Spanish speaker and I can’t make every dish without a recipe, I am 100 percent Boricua and I am proud of that. I know my family history and I have learned the important traditions…I just think people need to stop judging one another, especially within our own community. I have grown up not feeling accepted by the Latina community for not speaking Spanish, but also for being into hard rock and heavy metal, for not dressing ultra feminine, for not following certain trends… basically not “looking” or “sounding” the part…We are not all the same- Latinos vary greatly depending on their class, level of assimilation, and country or countries of origin. I think progress for us lies in our ability to express how varied we are and accept one another for our differences instead of holding each other to certain standards which basically reinforce the concept that we should all look and sound the same way.” – Andria Morales (Puerto Rican descent) / AreYouMyOther.com
Sources: Hispanic-Culture-Online.com, Latino.FoxNews.Com, FilmScouts.com, Latina.com, Hispanic7.com, ImDiversity.com …and special thanks to Andria, Laura and Gabrielle. Photos by: kenn!
Tracy López is a writer living outside the D.C. Metro area. Her blog, Latinaish.com, examines cultural differences she discovers as she navigates life in a bicultural, bilingual family. She can also be reached via Twitter @Latinaish.