Research on Hispanic trends conducted by Pew Research Center in 2012 showed that 2nd and 3rd generation Latinos in United States do not always speak Spanish. In fact, Spanish proficiency diminishes significantly as generations increase. Of Latinos born to immigrant parents, 80% can carry on a conversation in Spanish, while over half of third-generation Latinos speak little or no Spanish. Percentages for reading in Spanish fall even lower. Yet despite the fact that more and more US-born Latinos are speaking less Spanish, discrimination against them by Spanish-speaking Latinos continues to persist.
Elisa, 23, is painfully familiar with this reality. She grew up in a small Texan town that consisted largely of Hispanics. She grew up with 2nd-generation Mexican-American parents, and while random Spanish words and phrases like ‘mija’ and ‘arroz con pollo’ peppered her family’s vocabulary, she did not actually speak the Spanish language. This caused problems with some other Latinos, however, when they discovered that although she looked typically Mexican and ate Mexican foods and celebrated Mexican holidays she did not know the language. Spanish-speaking kids at school would either tease her by calling her a “fake” Hispanic or accuse her of pretending not to speak Spanish so that she could seem “like a white girl.” Although Elisa went on to minor in Spanish in college, she suffers from anxiety when speaking it in front of native speakers. She can’t shake the irrational belief that they are inwardly mocking and judging her. “I can’t seem to get those childhood voices out of my head,” she says. “It’s sad because Spanish feels tainted for me now.”
On the other hand Raquel, 19, speaks Spanish very well. She is a first-generation American born to Mexican parents and she grew up speaking the language daily with family and friends and also visiting her parents’ Mexican hometown annually. But she is well aware of the tendency of Hispanics to judge one another’s language abilities. She says her cousins from Mexico like to correct her grammatical errors and laugh when her American accent twists Spanish words. “They aren’t trying to be mean,” she says. “It’s just a joke. But it does make me self-conscious sometimes.”
Raquel says she just reminds herself that speaking perfect Spanish is not what makes her Mexican or Latino. And she’s right: blood, heritage and history determine one’s cultural ethnicity and whether or not someone speaks the language does not heighten or diminish his/her roots. And as Latinos become more established in the United States their children and grandchildren become more assimilated into mainstream culture and less acquainted with the homelands of their forefathers. As a result not every Latino has the advantage of Spanish-speaking parents at home. At the same time Spanish is a vibrant and growing language in the United States and those who do speak it deserve to take pride in that. Nonetheless Latinos can both celebrate the Spanish language and acknowledge that Latinos are linguistically diverse: some speak much Spanish, some speak a little, and some none at all. There’s no reason to believe Latinos must be one certain way. What’s more, diversity among Hispanics is one of our most compelling qualities.