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Is it necessary to speak Spanish to identify as Latino in the U.S.?

Roberto Ortiz, lecturer of Spanish, teaches a class for heritage speakers on Oct. 2, 2023, at the University of Nevada, Reno, in Reno, Nev.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Roberto Ortiz, lecturer of Spanish, teaches a class for heritage speakers on Oct. 2, 2023, at the University of Nevada, Reno, in Reno, Nev.

Lea en español.

A recent report indicates that 24% of Latino adults in the U.S. can only carry on a conversation in Spanish a little or not at all. This story explores Latinos’ experiences with the Spanish language.

Roberto Ortiz began his Monday afternoon Spanish class greeting his students and asking them how they are. But he was asking them in Spanish.

Ortiz, a lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno, teaches a class for Latino students with limited Spanish skills. His class also touches on culture and identity.

That afternoon, the class focused on stereotypes.

Ortiz asked students in Spanish what are the most common stereotypes about young Latinos. One student said Latinos are all construction workers, and another said Latinos are all “cholos.”

“Cholo” in Mexico refers to “member of a street gang,” but in other Latin American countries, “cholo” is a derogatory term to refer to Indigenous people, Ortiz explained.

All 27 students in the class struggle with Spanish at different levels, and all have at least one Latino parent.

“It’s a very interesting dynamic in which students come from different stages of their language abilities,” Ortiz said. “Some are able to communicate fairly well in Spanish, while others are shying back and not speaking as much.”

According to a Pew Research Center report, 24% of Latino adults in the U.S. say they can only carry on a conversation in Spanish a little or not at all. Third, fourth and younger generations are more likely not to learn the language, but Ortiz said it can happen sooner.

“Unfortunately, I’m getting a lot of students that they’re on the second generation, sometimes even the first generation, and are not able to keep up their abilities as other generations in the past,” he said.

Ortiz said there are many reasons why some Latinos in the U.S. do not speak Spanish, including not having been exposed to the language at a young age or having had a bad experience.

“Sometimes they have been mocked by other Latinos at home, their families. I have students who are told when they’re in middle school or elementary school, ‘don‘t speak Spanish, speak English,’ ” he said.

But it can also depend on where a person grew up, Ortiz said. While there are communities with large Spanish-speaking populations, some young Latinos may come from rural areas with limited exposure to the language, he said.

The Spanish for Heritage Speakers class provides a safe space to learn writing skills, vocabulary and identity, he said.

“Our students are in an environment where they’re welcome to make mistakes. Because I want them to practice, sometimes we read out loud and they get very nervous because they have to pronounce. So I’m there to guide them,” Ortiz said.

Is it necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino in the U.S.?

Latino identity in the U.S. can be shaped by many factors. One is speaking Spanish, which some Latinos use to distinguish who is Latino from who is not.

According to the Pew Research Center, 78% of Latino adults say it is not necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino, while 21% say it is.

Wendy Ramirez, founder of Spanish Sin Pena, a group that empowers Latinos to reconnect with their language and culture, said that language does not make an individuals’ identity, but it helps them connect with their heritage – including abuelos, tíos and primos.

“Since day one, we have said ‘you’re enough. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Spanish; your identity is there. You’re a Latina, Latino, Latina, Hispanic, however you want to self-identify, that’s yours.’ ”

 Wendy Ramirez (right) and Jackie Rodriguez are founder and co-founder of Spanish Sin Pena.
Courtesy of Spanish Sin Pena
Wendy Ramirez (right) and Jackie Rodriguez are founder and co-founder of Spanish Sin Pena.

Latinos judge each other by the way they look, Ramirez said. A person with Latin American features feels more pressure to speak Spanish.

“For someone that looks Latino, it is that expectation of ‘you should speak Spanish,’ and then you don't and like a disappointment in the other person’s eyes. And then for people that are white, that look white, it's like, 'oh, you're not Latino,' and so when they speak Spanish it is like, 'oh, so impressive, right?' It's a different reaction based on how you look without acknowledging that we come in all colors,” Ramirez said.

Emily Stauss, a 19-year-old UNR student taking Ortiz’s class, grew up in a Latino household. Her mom is from El Salvador and her dad is from the United States. She was able to read and speak in Spanish when she was young.

“My first words were in Spanish,” Stauss said. “I have definitely grown up in a Latino culture, even if people don’t want to identify me as that, I am. But once I started school, my mom kind of realized that me learning Spanish wasn’t helping my schooling. And then we found out that I had dyslexia. So she was like ‘oh, this is really not helping. We need to stop.’ ”

Not being able to speak Spanish as an adult has caused her frustration with how she is perceived by others, she said.

Stauss still understands the language, but struggles to speak it. Her desire to connect with her family and help her community encouraged her to take Professor Ortiz's class.

Stauss will finish her class with Professor Ortiz at the end of the year, but hopes to continue improving her Spanish to connect with her mother and grandparents, and to teach the language to her future children, she said.

It's never too late for a Latino to improve his or her Spanish, Ortiz said.

“If we have a supportive community, if we have supportive family members and other individuals, at school and in our community, then our students are going to be able, or anyone is going to be able to succeed,” he said.
Copyright 2023 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Maria Palma

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