I’m Mexican American. Chicana. Latina. And I don’t speak Spanish. In San Antonio, where I grew up, that was common among my Latino peers, whether they were first generation or their family had lived there since the time the state was still part of Mexico. But I’ve come to understand that, for some people, especially other Latinos, this equation does not compute. Language is culture, I’m frequently told. So if I don’t speak Spanish, can I even be Latina?
Over the years it has become reflexive for me to become defensive when challenged about the fact that I don’t speak my heritage tongue. But I am far from alone. The difference in the percentage of Latinos who speak mainly English between second and third generations is steep, leaping from 42 percent to 76 percent.
“People are always making judgments about who is Hispanic or Latino and who isn’t; what we can be allowed to call ourselves or not call ourselves,” says Maria Carreira, a professor at California State University, Long Beach. “It’s an unusual thing... . It applies mostly to Latinos and other immigrant communities.” For example, Carreira says, if someone tells you they’re Italian American and they like to cook Italian food, would you question them on their language skills?
Carreira’s an expert in the intersection of language and identity, and I wanted to ask her about heritage language learners — people who have grown up in a culture but don’t speak the language. Maybe she could explain why there’s so much gatekeeping around Latino identity and Spanish language skills. “There is a lot of language embedded in culture,” Carreira tells me, but the two are not interchangeable. “You can preserve culture — points of view, and practices of your culture — without really speaking the language.”
This is where someone less secure in their identity would tout their cultural bona fides. But I don’t have to brag about my grandmother’s tortillas to prove that I belong. Because I just do. According to research by Lucy Tse, who has studied identity in heritage language speakers, I’ve reached the fourth stage of identity development: acceptance of who I am. Maybe it’s my age, or my experience as a mixed-race, multiethnic woman that has made me secure in myself.
Still, when someone tries to tell you who you are, it can be upsetting. Some years ago I was invited to be on a panel of Hispanic journalists here in Boston. I was the only non-Spanish speaker among the guests, and one of the other panelists seemed to go out of her way to suggest that the only way to be Hispanic is to speak Spanish. It was a blatant attempt to make me feel excluded. Was I supposed to feel ashamed? The memory of it annoys me as much now as it did then.
But I’ve also experienced the flip side, when the community has been extremely inclusive, like the time I attended a talk at Harvard featuring an investigative journalist from Mexico. One of the organizers asked if anyone in attendance did not speak Spanish. I was the only one who raised my hand, but despite my protests, the event was conducted in English anyway.
Though I’d grown up hearing Spanish, it mostly did not occur to me that I should learn it. But that changed when I was living in Los Angeles in my 20s. A bilingual friend told me that though she spent much of her waking day speaking English, her dreams were in Spanish. Her language was so central to her identity that it inspired in me a desire to learn my mother’s language. Until that moment, Spanish to me was the language my grandma used when she sent me postcards. It was the language my mom spoke when she was on the phone with her sisters. It was the language she pretended not to speak when we were out in public.
My mom is no longer living, so I can’t ask her why she didn’t speak Spanish more often, even though it was the language she grew up with. But I’m sure the answer would be complex, and would involve her own sense of belonging.
She did tell me that she didn’t teach her children Spanish because a doctor advised her that it’d be too confusing for them, a commonly held but false belief. People once thought that “if you maintain a heritage language, it’s at the expense of English, it’s incompatible. It has to be one or the other,” Carreira says. “Linguists have known for a long time that’s not true.” The public schools where I live offer Spanish classes beginning in elementary school, so that isn’t going to be a difficult decision to make when my 2-year-old starts school. And kids in Boston’s K-12 public schools have access to heritage language classes.
I’ve recently started looking for heritage speaker classes for adults in Boston, because as Carreira asserted throughout our phone call, I don’t not speak Spanish. When I am in a pickle, I can, and have (like when I got lost running in Madrid and had to ask for directions). But most often, my brain shuts down — I might understand what someone is saying, but I can’t communicate back. Why? On some level, I admit, I am embarrassed. Can I be a Latina and speak bad Spanish?
Carreira contends that we need to redefine what it means to be bilingual, because bilingualism exists on a continuum. On one end are fluent speakers; on the other are people who may understand it but can’t speak it (or, as one Latino acquaintance recently put it, he “fluently understands” Spanish).
“There is a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to language,” Carreira says. Well, bilingual or not, I have one word for the language and identity police: Adiós.
Anica Butler is the deputy managing editor for local news at The Boston Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anica Butler can be reached at email@example.com.