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Gone are the days when US Latinos were told to “speak English because this is America.” Just kidding, those days are alive and well in many parts of the country, but I have the displeasure of sharing one of the new ways people shame Latinos for their linguistic heritage.
Now, many (including Latinos) believe that “you’re not a Latino if you can’t speak Spanish.” While writing this, my editor even shared that there is even a nickname for children who don’t speak the language well: “no sabo” kids.
If you have ever been told you are not Latino enough because you speak little or no Spanish, you’re not alone. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of all US Latinos who speak no more than “a little” Spanish have had another Latino point it out and make them feel bad for it. The experience seems to be worse for those aged eighteen to forty-nine, as over 57 percent of those Latinos report being repeatedly shamed by other Latinos for their lack of Spanish language skills.
All of this is concerning since 65 percent of Latinos in the US say they cannot carry a conversation well in Spanish. Whether it’s Anglos shaming us or we are shaming each other, to me, the root of all this shaming is that in the US, speaking anything other than English is a liability, not an asset.
WARNING: Before you keep reading and/or ask this writer to please stop writing in English, Spanish, or any other language, please remember this column was conceived to be handled with a serious dose of humor.
It’s for Your Own Safety
When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1999, I was told by several local friends to refrain from speaking Spanish, especially if I were to be pulled over by police. Although I was new to the country, I soon understood why. Police bias against Latinos in California, particularly against recent immigrants who spoke no English, meant that we were always assumed to be “bad guys.”
Despite being here on a work visa and having the ability to pass off for a white, I was still warned against sounding too Mexican. It was a matter of safety, so I learned to shut up (in all languages), put my hands on the wheel, and freeze.
That wasmany moons ago, and a lot of Latinos today feel more comfortable and prouder than ever of their heritage and language. But the damage is done. For many decades (perhaps longer), Latino parents were forced to not teach their children Spanish so they could truly “assimilate.” Many states have implemented English-only laws that (even today) are discouraging school children from speaking any other language.
Spanish in the Classroom? No Way, José!
I asked my English-dominant Latino followers about their experience with all aspects of this issue. The response was overwhelming and some of the replies were simply heartbreaking.
“When I was a kid, my grandparents wanted me to speak English to assimilate better,” wrote a follower who I assume grew up in the era of speak-English-because-this-is-America.
“My entire family makes fun of me for not speaking Spanish. Even my mother, the person that decided to not teach me Spanish, makes fun of me about not speaking it,” wrote another.
“My granddaughter doesn’t speak Spanish, a few words here and there,” wrote a concerned grandmother. “A kid, seven years old, laughed at her, telling her she’s not Mexican or Hispanic. My granddaughter went home crying.”
I have never been shamed for my lack of Spanish skills, of course, being a Mexico-born, so-called “Spanish dominant” Latina. However, I have experienced monolingual Anglos giggle at how I speak and make remarks about my “funny accent” (which I, of course, think is super cute and not a joke, despite my attempts at making you laugh with this column). They have also quipped at the way I mispronounce certain words. “Tit” instead of “teeth.” “Bitch” instead of “beach.” And don’t get me started on my “Happy Sandwich” greeting.
In my humble opinion, speaking another language (even partially) is not only cool, but the jokes are funnier when you’re bilingual. Studies have also shown that bilingualism helps improve other skills such as communication, creativity, recall, and concentration, regardless of if they learned the language as a child or as an adult.
When it comes to speaking Spanish in the US, we always seem to get it wrong. If we speak it loudly and proudly, even with an “exotic” accent like mine, we’re told to shut up. If we speak it poorly, we’re told we’re too gringo. So, here’s an idea: Let’s just make Spanish the official language of the US so we can all be shamed equally.
Stay tuned for Laura Martinez’s next Hisplaining column, which will tackle other key biz terms and jargon and help leaders everywhere smoothly navigate the multicultural business world. In the meantime, send us tips and ideas for other terms and jargon that you’d like to see us feature. And remember: Don’t panic . . . it’s just his-PANIC!