Latinos may struggle with Spanish, but lack of language doesn’t define them

Latino does not mean bilingual, and no one knows this better than 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro. As the San Antonio native stepped on stage for the first Democratic debate in Miami, he was hoping to make an impact with voters for his years of public policy, but ended up being remembered for not speaking Spanish well. 

Afterward, he was put on the spot for not being able to connect with the Latino population like his opponents Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker. This wasn’t the first time he had been publicly harassed by others trying to discredit his Latino identity. 

For many Latinos like Castro, speaking Spanish has been a target for harassment. In an effort to show they are assimilating, they’ve dropped their native language. 

Josie Espinoza taking notes during a Spanish class. (Breybinda Zurisaday Alvarez /Latino Reporter)

“On the one hand, you have people that are being targeted because they don’t speak Spanish,” Castro said on Thursday in an interview with reporters. “On the other hand with some folks you have this double standard of… Well why don’t you speak Spanish? It just doesn’t make any sense.” 

A 2018 Pew Research Center investigation revealed that four in 10 Latinos have experienced discrimination in the past year. This includes being called offensive names, being told to go back to their home country, being criticized for speaking Spanish in public or experiencing unfair treatment because they are Latino. 

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting identified more than 150 reports of Trump-themed taunts and attacks stretching across 39 states during 2017-2018.

Many first-generation Latinos lose connection to their culture and Spanish-speaking relatives. 

Josie Espinoza, a student at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico – San Antonio. She is a San Antonio native studying Spanish. (Breybinda Zurisaday Alvarez /Latino Reporter)

For Josie Espinoza, the benefits to speaking Spanish outweigh the possible problems. Espinoza is a Spanish language student at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) – San Antonio. She sees the benefit of catching up and learning Spanish at the age of 35. 

She works for the City of San Antonio as an education coordinator. 

“San Antonio is very segregated,” Espinoza said. “It’s known that the West and South side(s) of SA is where more Spanish speakers live.”

She is responsible for informing the Spanish language media and serving as a liaison between the schools and families. Espinoza said, “I want to make sure I don’t sound illiterate when I’m speaking to the audience.” 

Espinoza’s mother is from Piedras Negras, Mexico, and her father is Texan of Mexican heritage. She was raised speaking little Spanish at home in brief conversations with her grandmother.

Espinoza now has a child of her own who is frustrated with not understanding Spanish. 

“Can you please talk in English?” she asks her mom and grandmother when she feels left out of conversations.

In the future, Espinoza plans to ask her daughter if she wants to learn Spanish, which might ultimately be a benefit for both mother and daughter. 

Despite the hostility from the current administration, the growing Hispanic population dominates growing business, arts and entertainment opportunities. 

It’s not just Spanish that makes Hispanics who they are. It’s their different perspectives of bringing food, music and traditions to their new home. 

And this growing population makes them desirable as a political force for the 2020 campaign.

Breybinda Zurisaday Alvarez is a second-year graduate student at the University of Arkansas, studying journalism. Breybinda has interned for a Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa Libre in Springdale, Arkansas. Reach her at and on Twitter at @breybinda.

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