Being Latino is about much more than just speaking "perfect Spanish"

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Being Latino is about much more than just speaking "perfect Spanish"
Smiling women sharing food and drinks during backyard barbecue Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
  • 41 million people speak Spanish in the US. But the share of Latinos who use it at home is declining.
  • Linguistic assimilation has caused Spanish to slowly succumb in some families.

For Latinos in the US, the question of identity is complex and, for some, the answer is substantially tied to whether a person is a Spanish-speaking person or not.

Moises Mendez II, a Dominican-American journalist, has asked himself that question. But for him, when it comes to family, love isn't lost in translation even if Spanish is the language barrier.

"I'm slowly coming to terms with my stance on learning the language as being, 'I'll teach myself Spanish when I'm ready, but if I don't, that's okay too,'" he wrote.

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For others like him, Spanish isn't intrinsic to Latino identity, either. Already, most Latino adults say that while Spanish is an important part of Latino culture, it isn't necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino.

How a person self-identifies, actually, goes beyond how they relate to a language. Here's why.

The use of Spanish among Latinos is changing

About 41 million people speak Spanish in the US, making it the second most spoken language in the country. And while that number continues to grow, the amount of self-identified Latinos who speak it at home is declining as English dominance rises through generations, according to the Pew Research Center.

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Only 7% of foreign-born, self-identified Hispanics say they mostly use English at home. The share increases to 75% for third-and-higher-generation Americans.

And experts note the experience of being Latino isn't the same for everyone.

Latinos are often seen as an homogeneous group of people, all represented in the same way. But the assumption that there's a common, singular identity among Latinos is a misrepresentation of the category as a whole.

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Related Article Module: For Latinx families, love isn't lost in translation even if Spanish is the language barrier

"The notion of Latino isn't homogenous, it is very heterogeneous. There are country of origin differences, there are ethnic differences, and there are regional differences that produce a lot of different types of subjectivities within the category of Latino," Dr. Phillip Carter, a sociolinguistics scholar, told Insider.

Being Latino is not a one-size-fits-all, but the Latino narrative was constructed to assume just that.

In her book, "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American," sociologist G. Cristina Mora, explains the development of the "Hispanic" identity and how groups from different regions and different political perspectives were all united under this term.

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And although panethnic words like "Latino" and "Hispanic" are largely used to describe one's identity, different Latino subgroups have their own personal experiences of what it is to be Latino, as they relate to culture, race, beliefs, gender, and even socio-political status, not just language.

What would Latinidad or "Latino-ness," then, look like to indigenous communities that don't traditionally speak Spanish?

Overall, language isn't the only way to articulate one's identity.

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Embracing your culture, having pride in your ancestry, and sharing that with your communities is how we, Latinos that don't speak Spanish, can make the most impact.

People speak different languages because of different reasons

Language ideologies-how language is used in the social world-are politically loaded. There is a social structure to the use of a language or the absence of it.

Carter explains that the political conceptualization of language in the United States and elsewhere suggests that languages, nations, and populations line up congruently.

Assumptions are often that if someone's in France they speak French, if they're in the United States they speak English, or if they're Hispanic then they speak Spanish. But it's not always that simple.

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"In reality, people speak different languages depending on their experiences in the world that relate to their ethnicity, and also political notions of country, but are not determined by those notions," he said.

In other words, someone can be a Latino in the United States and be a Spanish monolingual, an English monolingual, or anything in between.

These different language outcomes, for the most part, exist because of how a person, or generations before them, perceived the language. For most people, having seen or experienced some sort of linguistic discrimination made them loathe Spanish.

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For immigrants who've integrated into American society, being subjected to anti-immigrant rhetoric has discouraged them from using their native language as a primary form of communication. As a result, their cultural linguistic roots have been severed and their native language dismissed.

This linguistic assimilation causes Spanish to slowly succumb in some families.

More than 50% of third generation parents even choose not to speak Spanish to their children, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report.

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"In my grandparents' time, in my mom's time, Spanish was looked down upon," Julian Castro, former secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, told MSNBC.

"People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English," he added.

Today, "English-only" workplace policies, anti-Latino sentiments, hate speech, or general hostility towards the language, are just some forms of discrimination Latinos face.

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About four-in-ten Latinos (38%) have experienced discrimination, according to Pew.

Being Latino is about much more than just speaking "perfect Spanish"

Others who dwell within the category of Latino who might, for instance, be undocumented, vulnerable to the state, or are under constant threat of feeling like they are going to be deported, might see the "Latino-as-threat" discourse and choose not to speak Spanish in public.

But this linguicism isn't exclusive to new immigration. Anti-Latino prejudice dates back to the 1840s, where school segregation, illegal deportation, and even lynchings of Spanish-speaking US citizens mirrored the Civil Rights violations African American faced.

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There's more to Latino identity than just speaking Spanish

Prejudice against Spanish continued well into the late 80s, and its long-lasting effects brought up entire generations who don't speak it and are left not feeling "Latino enough."

But constructing a larger sense of Latino identity is about finding ways to connect with one's heritage, whether it's through Spanish or not.

Related Article Module: The Latino electorate is growing. What does that mean for the future of American politics?

It's about the richness of the Latino culture and the diversity across the Latin diaspora.

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"​​Not knowing Spanish isn't something to be looked down upon," Manuel Rocha, a Mexican-American, said in his Podcast Latinos that don't speak Spanish.

He added "embracing your culture, having pride in your ancestry, and sharing that with your communities is how we, Latinos that don't speak Spanish, can make the most impact."

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