Many Third-Generation Latinos Don't Speak Spanish. They're Tired Of Being Judged For It.

For children and grandchildren of immigrants, the message from some inside the community is clear: "You're not really Latino if you don't speak Spanish."
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“Unfortunately, [third generation] heritage speakers often receive criticism of their language abilities from all sides, which they internalize as a personal failing,” said Amelia Tseng, an assistant professor of linguistics and Spanish at American University in Washington, D.C.
Illustration: Adrián Astorgano For HuffPost
“Unfortunately, [third generation] heritage speakers often receive criticism of their language abilities from all sides, which they internalize as a personal failing,” said Amelia Tseng, an assistant professor of linguistics and Spanish at American University in Washington, D.C.

As a child, Prizzilla Greer often felt caught in the middle of a cultural tug of war because she didn’t speak Spanish.

Growing up in Murrieta and Temecula, wine-producing suburbs about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles, Spanish seemed nonexistent, she told HuffPost.

“For the most part, the majority of our peers were white,” Greer said.

But in the confines of her home, Greer received mixed messaging on the importance of being bilingual. Greer was born to a Mexican-American mother and a Mexican father who was granted amnesty during Ronald Reagan’s time in office. While her dad was adamant that she’d only speak English, her maternal grandmother had other ideas.

“Our grandmother, who we call ‘buela,’ short for abuela, wanted us to learn Spanish, and would speak it to us or try to teach us against our dad’s wishes,” she said.

Her mom would have preferred the kids be bilingual, too, but Greer said her dad feared that if they were, or if they had even a hint of a Spanish accent, “they would endure the same kind of abuse from white Americans” as he did as a kid growing up in the states.

Even soccer was off limits for Greer and her siblings: Football was fine, fútbol wasn’t.

“He wanted to avoid all Mexican stereotypes for us, so he’d encourage all-American sports like football or baseball,” said Greer, who’s now 29 and lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and two kids.

Since then, Greer’s attempts to learn Spanish have come in fits and starts: She tried taking it in high school, but it was Peninsular Spanish (Spanish spoken in Spain) and as a teen, she had trouble seeing the value in that particular dialect.

While stationed in Germany during her time in the U.S. Army, Greer tried Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, but again, it didn’t quite stick. Years later, she still hopes to learn the language once and for all.

“I feel like it’s a chunk of my identity that was missing growing up in a conservative, white space,” she said.

But what’s equally frustrating for Greer is the judgment she receives from others in the Latino American community for her lack of Spanish fluency. The criticism and cattiness is especially common online.

“The judgement has been more in recent years because social media has made it a thing to harass Latinos who don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Now, I have to tell the world that I’m not white, because apparently now if you’re Mexican-American and don’t speak Spanish, it means you’re white.”

As a Mexican-American who doesn't speak Spanish, Prizzilla Greer often feels judged. “The judgement has been more in recent years because social media has made it a thing to harass Latinos who don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Now, I have to tell the world that I’m not white, because apparently now if you’re Mexican-American and don’t speak Spanish, it means you’re white.”
Courtesy of Prizzilla Greer
As a Mexican-American who doesn't speak Spanish, Prizzilla Greer often feels judged. “The judgement has been more in recent years because social media has made it a thing to harass Latinos who don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Now, I have to tell the world that I’m not white, because apparently now if you’re Mexican-American and don’t speak Spanish, it means you’re white.”

That’s a familiar Catch-22 for Latinos in the U.S. who grew up in a time before dual-language immersion programs: You’re told to exclusively speak English in order to assimilate and get a better paying job, only to be judged by your community ― and sometimes other family members ― for not being “Latino enough” as a monolingual English speaker. It’s marginalization on top of marginalization.

“That bothers me because my experience growing up hasn’t been that I was a white-passing or white person,” Greer said. “If that was the case, other Mexicans wouldn’t have thought they could speak to me in Spanish. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have been ‘the Mexican friend’ for my white friends. I would’ve just been their friend.”

If that was the case, she thinks her father wouldn’t have felt that outsized fear of his daughter speaking the family’s native tongue.

Because of the desire to assimilate — and in some cases, generational trauma — it’s common for third-generation Latinos to exclusively speak English.

Greer is one of many third generation Latino-Americans who don’t speak Spanish. Recent Pew Research Center studies have found that while about half of second-generation self-identified Latino are bilingual, fewer than a quarter of third generation Latinos speak Spanish.

Others are “receptive bilinguals,” meaning they can understand more of a language than they can speak it.

In spite of the numbers, the “must speak Spanish” litmus test still plagues the third-gen community, said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College and author of “Chicano English in Context,” “Language and Ethnicity,” and “Language and Gender in Children’s Animated Film.”

“When I did my research in East LA, several of the monolingual English speakers that I spoke with said that people teased them about it and said ‘you’re not really Mexican,’ particularly among girls,” Fought said.

“Growing up in the Bay Area, I felt like an imposter, or that I wasn’t ‘Latinx-enough’ to speak a language. I was intimidated, and still am, about my English accent.”

- Robin D. López, a Mexican-American ecologist who lives in Albany, California

At school and at home, “English-only” may be drilled into you but eventually, the gatekeeping comes from outside, too. That’s especially true in the workforce, according to Laura K. Muñoz, an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Gatekeeping often comes from employers who expect every Latinx to be fluent English and Spanish speakers, which is ironic given the history of English-only and Americanization in our public schools,” the professor told HuffPost.

English-only proponents ― and some native Spanish-speaking parents ― worry that concurrently learning two languages will hinder kids’ English language acquisition. Research suggests otherwise, though; one 2019 University of Washington study suggested that exposure to multiple languages may make it easier to learn one.

For other parents, discouraging their kids from speaking Spanish is a by-product of having been punished for speaking the language in school. If you hear, “This is America, we speak English here” enough times, you’re bound to take the scolding to heart and pass it down to successive generations.

“There were even ‘Spanish detention slips’ in Los Angeles schools for a long time,” Fought said. “I just had a teacher tell me it still happens sometimes. They just call it something different like ‘disturbing the other students by speaking in class.’”

This issue became a minor news item in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, when candidate and third-generation Mexican-American Julián Castro was pressed on why he didn’t speak Spanish ― especially while a white guy like fellow candidate Beto O’Rourke did.

While his grandma encouraged bilingualism, his parents feared their kids would be penalized for speaking Spanish in class just like they were, he explained.

As his brother, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro, said last year in an interview with KSAT-TV, “it really is just a generation of people who had a language literally beaten out of them in our school system.”

“It’s so tragic and unfortunate because it was not only the loss of a language, but also partly the loss of a culture,” he added.

The Castro brothers’ story was deeply felt by many. Ultimately, “[their] monoglot experience is just as authentic — and even more uniquely American,” Mexican-American essayist John Paul Brammer wrote in The Washington Post during the election.

Robin D. López, a Mexican-American ecologist who lives in Albany, California, is sure his family’s Spanish language abandonment is a result of generational trauma and the drive to assimilate as quickly and seamlessly as possible. (In López’s family, only his grandparents natively speak Spanish.)

His grandpa could never forget his uncle Antonio, an immigrant who was killed trying to start a new life in Riverbank, California, in the 1940s.

“He was a Mexican who dared dream of building generational wealth for his family,” López said. “His body was left blocks away from the family home in the Stanislaus River in 1945.”

“My grandfather was still just a child at the time,” he added. “I’d imagine that experience played a significant role in ensuring his descendants assimilated for survival.”

When it came to López knowing and learning Spanish, lack of exposure wasn’t an issue. He was raised in Richmond, California, and spent much of his youth working in Oakland communities with high populations of displaced people from Latin America as well as first generation folks who grew up speaking Spanish.

By the time he got up the nerve to learn Spanish on his own, López told HuffPost he’d already internalized that he was inadequate. Just imagining stumbling over a language he felt like he “should” be well-versed in from the get-go left him deeply self-conscious.

“Growing up in the Bay Area, I felt like an imposter, or that I wasn’t ‘Latinx-enough’ to speak a language,” he said. “I was intimidated, and still am, about my English accent.”

“Everyone usually spoke Spanish around me, but I also had a negative stereotype projected onto me,” he said. “I had the idea embedded into me that speaking Spanish could be weaponized against me, since our grandparents, particularly my mother’s father, have witnessed and experienced the abuse towards Spanish-speaking families.”

López’s dad eventually taught himself Spanish, but given his schedule working multiple jobs to provide for the family, he didn’t have much time to teach his kids. López, who has since learned Spanish himself enough to carry a conversation, doesn’t hold any of that against his dad.

“My dad does have regrets about not being able to teach his kids, but that’s not a fault or burden he should carry,” he said. “Not teaching the following generations Spanish was more or less a survival mechanism for our elders, to protect us.”

Robin D. López with his father, grandfather and other relatives when he was six months old, and López today.
Courtesy of Robin D. López
Robin D. López with his father, grandfather and other relatives when he was six months old, and López today.

Fought, the linguistics professor, noted the inherent racism involved in discouraging speaking Spanish in the classroom.

“Imagine the difference between parents who speak Spanish or Cantonese and parents who speak French and come from Paris,” she said.

In the first case, “everyone worries that the kid won’t learn English and if they speak the other language at school, they may get teased or bullied,” Fought said. “They may be embarrassed to hear their parents speak it around their friends.”

In the latter case, Fought said everyone would be saying, “Oh, your mom is French, that’s so cool; it’s such a beautiful language.”

In some cases, the judgement over spotty Spanish-speaking comes from within a family.

Marisa Martín, a 26-year-old who lives in California’s Central Valley, is half Mexican and half German. Her dad, the Mexican half of the parental equation, speaks fluent Spanish and her mom is conversational in Spanish.

Growing up, Martín’s grandma babysat and tried to instill Spanish in her, but Martín rejected the lessons with all the stubbornness and defiance you’d expect of a toddler.

“I regret not learning then so much,” she told HuffPost. “I can understand and speak some Spanish, but it’s nowhere close to fluent.”

Because of that ― and because she’s part white ― Martín often feels like she has imposter syndrome within her own family, who talk a mile a minute and by and large don’t repeat themselves for Martín’s benefit.

“Some of my family is very loving and accepting, but others are not and have certainly made it known that they feel I’m not as Mexican as they are,” she said.

“The latter group will even go so far as to speak complicated sentences in Spanish directly to me in order to humiliate me because they know I don’t understand them,” she explained. “Keep in mind, my entire Mexican family speaks English fluently and has no need to speak to me in Spanish.”

Looking at the Pew stats, Martín is heartened to know that there are other third-gen Mexican-American in a “similar linguistic boat as me.”

Marisa Martín is half Mexican and sometimes feels judged by her family for not being "Mexican enough" or speaking Spanish fluently.
Courtesy of Marisa Martín
Marisa Martín is half Mexican and sometimes feels judged by her family for not being "Mexican enough" or speaking Spanish fluently.

Still, it saddens her to think how their stories are often discounted, swept under the table or unfairly judged.

“I’m fortunate to live in California where there are an abundance of Mexicans and Hispanics, but I know in many other parts of the U.S. and world, people have a preconceived notion of what a Mexican should look and sound like,” she said.

When someone feels ― or is made to feel inferior― about the language(s) they speak (or don’t speak) and the way that they speak them, it’s what linguists describe as “linguistic insecurity.”

“‘Speaking Spanish’ is a moving target for immigrants’ children, who are criticized by their own families and communities for not sounding ‘like a native speaker,’ regardless of how well they do speak and understand Spanish, and how this leads to anxiety, linguistic insecurity and a questioning of identity,” said Amelia Tseng, an assistant professor of linguistics and Spanish at American University in Washington, D.C.

“Unfortunately, heritage speakers often receive criticism of their language abilities from all sides, which they internalize as a personal failing,” she said.

Ultimately, language is only one aspect of cultural identity.

Each third-gen person we spoke to for this article wants to learn or is in the process of learning Spanish. López wants to learn mostly because when his grandfather was dying, it crushed him to know how much he’d never know about the patriarch’s life and memories all because of a language barrier.

But each person we spoke to also has complicated feelings about the in-community pressure to pass a Spanish test in order to be considered Latino.

López, for instance, knows that his work within the Latinx community is worth more than using the right preposition in Spanish and remembering that it’s “gracias por…” not “gracias par.”

“In spite of the language barriers at times, I’ve worked hard in advocacy spaces and with grass-root organizations to protect our vulnerable community members in my hometown of Richmond, California,” he said. “I’ve also done photography gigs as a local freelance photographer to highlight the beauty of our culture and the ways in which we celebrate our intersectionality of existence.”

Most recently, he decided to run for local elected office for Albany City Council. López said he hopes to champion progressive policies, while also serving to represent the growing Latinx population in the area.

“Not speaking Spanish has its challenges, but it doesn’t prevent a person from representing our culture and people,” he said.

“The fact that we continue to embrace ourselves as Latinxs is what really matters, whether we speak Spanish, English, or both.”

- Laura K. Muñoz, an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Greer hopes that people who blame third-generation Latinos for not speaking their parent’s language will try to see the nuance involved in situations like theirs.

“It wasn’t our choice,” she said. “Everyone says you can always learn, but it’s extremely difficult to learn another language after those early years of childhood, and some of us have learning disabilities or ADHD, like myself.”

Plus, she said, “if we’re really going to go there, Spanish isn’t even our language, it’s the language of our Spanish colonizers.”

Ultimately, language is only one aspect of cultural identity, said Muñoz, the ethnic studies professor.

“If we choose not to teach our children Spanish, but teach them everything else that we believe is relevant, then that’s what matters,” she said. “We get to decide what counts.”

American historian Vicki Ruiz has written that Chicano immigrants and their children “pick, borrow and retain” elements of their home culture. Muñoz looks at today’s third-gen Latino Americans and sees them doing the exact same thing.

“In a society that has proactively attempted to quash our language and our Latinidad, the fact that we continue to embrace ourselves as Latinxs is what really matters, whether we speak Spanish, English, or both,” she said.

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