HOUSTON — When Kimberly Cruz was a college freshman studying broadcast journalism, someone told her that her Spanish wasn’t good enough to speak it on TV.
As an aspiring bilingual reporter, she said, the comment hurt her confidence. But it also perplexed her.
Cruz is the daughter of Salvadoran parents, and her family speaks Spanish at home. Until her high school years, she was enrolled in classes for students who were learning English as a second language.
Rejected by both cultures, she began to feel like she didn’t belong anywhere.
Young Latinos make up one of the fastest-growing demographic populations among their age group, according to population data from the Pew Research Center. As generations pass, the community’s culture and vocabulary blends into the American mainstream. In 2017, nearly seven out of 10 Hispanics were U.S.-born, according to Pew, and of those, 90 percent only spoke or are fluent in English.
That means many U.S-born Latinos feel disconnected from the Spanish language in its traditional form. For some, that’s because they grew up in places where only English is spoken. For others, it is a result of U.S. policies that intentionally discouraged and penalized the use of Spanish in public schools and among Latino populations.
Belem Lopez, an expert in bilingualism at the University of Texas at Austin, said non-Spanish speaking Latinos are often marginalized because many people associate their identity with the Spanish language. But, she added, that shouldn’t be the case.
“Who’s to say there is only one Latinx experience,” Lopez said.
Latinos who stop using Spanish or mix it with English are sometimes shamed for their pronunciation, making them reluctant to speak it. Native Spanish speakers even invented an offensive term to describe Mexican Americans who speak Spanish incorrectly: pocho.
It cut two ways for Cruz. When she was in ESL classes, she felt like she was looked down upon by her English-speaking classmates. Kids who took ESL classes were often embarrassed to admit they were in them.
Later, when she was criticized for her Spanish and took courses to perfect it, she felt disheartened.
“I didn’t want to talk,” she said. “I just wanted to get my work done and leave.”
But Lopez said Spanglish speakers have a very important skill: the ability to code-switch. Understanding two overlapping languages during a conversation requires proficiency in both.
“Spanglish is great!” she said. “It’s another linguistic tool.”
For Marco Revuelta, a bilingual journalist who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, the Mexican American saying “ni de aquí, ni de allá” hits home. News directors from English-language stations would tell him his Spanish accent wasn’t fit for TV. Meanwhile, Spanish-language stations would criticize his pronunciation.
He says being raised bilingual was great for his cultural competency, but he worried it kept him from mastering one language or the other.
So Revuelta hit the books. In college, his world opened. All the grammar knowledge he ever wanted was finally at his fingertips, and he signed up for advanced Spanish courses.
“I get a little bit jealous when I hear someone talk really good Spanish,” he said. “It’s because they come from Mexico.”
Francisco Vara-Orta grew up hearing about his parents being punished for speaking Spanish at school. They raised him to prioritize English above Spanish so he wouldn’t grow up with an accent as they did.
Despite that, he learned to embrace his culture.
The younger, Gen Z “generation gives me so much hope,” Vara-Orta said. “Ya’ll embrace it.”
He experienced a cultural awakening through the death of legendary cumbia artist Selena Quintanilla, whose legacy inspired many conversations about Latino heritage in the United States. Other Latina icons like Thalia drew him to learn Spanish with his grandma.
These days, the use of the hybrid Spanglish is much more accepted, as is evident in the explosive growth of Latino-focused media companies like Remezcla and Mitú who showcase the seamless combination of English and Spanish.
It’s an irreversible trend, Vara-Orta said, adding that he hopes future generations can be spared from the shame he and his parents felt for being Mexican-American.
Reminiscing over their experiences, Cruz, Revuelta, and Vara Orta shared advice for young journalists who grew up struggling to live between two worlds in the United States as they did: learn about the history of American marginalization of the Spanish language, consume Spanish in literature and media, and gather frequently with other Spanish speakers.
“Vales dos,” Vara-Orta said, “when you speak two idiomas.”
Daisy Espinoza is a 2021 graduate of the University of Houston, where she studied broadcast journalism and human development and family studies. A bilingual journalist, Espinoza has worked with Houston Public Radio and at her university’s television station. Reach her at espinoza.daisy.n [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @daisynespinoza_.