UPDATED August 1st, 2016

I hate when it happens. When my mother-in-law comes over and she is in a heated discussion with my husband and I wonder if she’s talking about me. When I shop at the local Mexican market and I need two pounds of queso fresco. When I’m introduced to a sweet, elderly brown woman who doesn’t speak any English.

30 replies
  1. Frank
    Frank says:

    Denise, thanks for speaking out. Spanish may be the language of our parents and relatives but it is also the language of the Conquistador. Now it is the language mega corporations are using to sell substandard product and lousy entertainment. We Chicanos don’ owe loyalty to Spanish. Okay, if we want to learn and practice Spanish because we want to that is something else. But we should not feel pressured to do so.

  2. Karen Costoso-Fernandez
    Karen Costoso-Fernandez says:

    As a third-generation Latina, I feel your pain. I, like you, don’t speak Spanish fluently, although I’m married to a Puerto Rican. I’m what one would call a stifled-Spanish suburbanite of the 60’s (see my ClubMami blog post “Stifled once…¡pero no más!”), a product of my parents’ fear of marginalization. Although Latin food and music have always been a part of my life, Spanish was not spoken in the home. I remember distinctly how my parents would speak in Spanish only when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about. And as a result, I resented this exclusive tongue as a child. I essentially learned the language in school; and as an adult, I have embraced the language and continue to strive to one day be fluent. I love Latin pop and listen to it on a daily basis and enjoy “everything Latina.” Yet I, too, live with this tongue-tied handicap of not being able to speak confidently and fluently (although I have worked as a back-up bi-lingual proofreader). I know I’m not alone with only 17% of third-generation Latinos able to fluently speak Spanish. However, I do hope that the percentage declines…and that many of us get on the bandwagon along with such celebrities as Jessica Alba, Cameron Diaz and Selena Gomez and learn our mother tongue. Let’s not let the language of our ancestors get lost in translation…literally.

    • Karen Costoso-Fernandez
      Karen Costoso-Fernandez says:

      Just wish to make a correction:
      I know I’m not alone with only 17% of third-generation Latinos able to fluently speak Spanish. However, I do hope that the percentage increases…and that many of us get on the bandwagon along with such celebrities as Jessica Alba, Cameron Diaz and Selena Gomez and learn our mother tongue.

  3. redladee
    redladee says:

    To the author: If you want to learn how to speak Spanish, then take some classes. Spanish is not a difficult language to learn. My sense is that you don’t really want to speak Spanish, but for some reason you feel that you should.

    Assimilation is normal. Don’t worry about it.

    • Elena Francisco
      Elena Francisco says:

      I am not speaking for Denise, but can certainly empathize with her. It is not that we do not want to speak Spanish fluently. It seems that our history of listening to the language, having the SoCal Spanish accent, and having the outward appearance of a Mexican seem to give others a license to cast aspersions on us because we are not fluent. Denise’s story could well have been mine. My Caucasian friends will use incorrect tenses when trying to communicate in Spanish and the listener will answer politely. I use an an incorrect tense, and I get a weird look and a Spanish lesson. I am becoming more and more fluent reading and listening, but the anxiety of the ‘look and lesson’ is never far from the surface.

  4. Maggie @ Mama Maggies
    Maggie @ Mama Maggies says:

    I was born and raised in LA. I refuse for my child to lose the connection to our culture. Language is one of the ways we are bound together as Latinos. I force myself everyday to speak to him only in Spanish. This isn’t as easy as you may think. I struggle to remember simple words like “tires” or “shower curtain.” My son is part of my family, and my family speaks Spanish. I want him to communicate with my father and cousins. The other reason I do this is because the writing is on the wall. We, Latinos, are growing in fast numbers. We will dominate the job market very soon. I want to give my son all the opportunities that are at my disposal.

  5. Silke
    Silke says:

    I completely agree with you Maggie. I moved to the states 11 years ago and my husband is a gringo and all the family and friends around us. One thing I am not to give up is to raise my children bilingual. I want my kids to speak with their grandparents in Peru whenever they want. Learning a second language is a very natural process when you are a kid so when hen my kids get older I don’t want them to ask me why I never tought them to speak in Spanish. It’s very difficult but it’s very rewarding. It’s up to us parents to pass their language to our kids, you won’t regret it! 🙂

  6. Dee
    Dee says:

    It makes me feel so much better reading that others are going through the same thing I am. I am second generation since my mom was born in CA and speaks both English and spanish even though my dad speaks spanish, the older I got the more I lost the language I feel. I’m not trying to make excuses but I think it has to do with the environment I was raised in; English only in school & my Mom speaking English to me the majority of the time. I can carry on a conversation in Spanish but it is not as fluent & I often feel embarrassed or nervous when I get stuck and do not know the translation of words or how to pronounce them properly. Its makes it worse when other point it out to me or correct me in a way that makes me feel dumb & not “Mexican” enough.

  7. Vado-Loco95
    Vado-Loco95 says:

    I am a second generation Mexican on my dads side and a fourth generation on my mother’s side. I was grew up with English and Spanish. I talked kind of funny in English and Spanish. I never had the chance to learn to either of them perfectly as a kid. I went to school and my English became a lot better, but my Spanish kinda declined. I would get picked on a lot by my friends who knew Spanish. They would call wuedo, gringo, and they would say they were more Mexican than I was. I hated it. I would come home crying a couple times. It sucked. I understood it pretty good because i grew up in a ghetto mainly Latino neighborhood. i just could not speak it without sounding funny. I became half-as fluent with Spanish when I was 14, I worked with my Buelo and spent the afternoons with my Buela. By about 16 I could understand it perfectly, I could speak it to but sometimes I’d still mispronounce some words. I’m Mexican through and through, I’m proud, people judge me all the time on my light skin and label me as a white boy. I think we all have a story and people that judge us, just haven’t read the story. It’s kind of funny before when I was young I people labeled me as ‘Mexican who couldn’t speak Spanish’, now people that don’t know me label me ‘ white boy that speaks Spanish’. Whatever haha.

  8. RSLatin
    RSLatin says:

    I am in the same boat. People will never understand it if they have not experienced it fully. At best Spanish speakers pity you… at worst they treat you will utter disgust as if your existence offends them. Other Americans they just assume you speak Spanish because you are brown skinned and when they find out you don’t they treat you as if you are a cripple or something. Forget about finding a job! Employers think “hmm why should I hire this brown person who doesn’t speak Spanish when I could hire this other brown person that does and pay them the same?”

    It really is awful, its like not having a people or an identity. If your a male (like I am) the language barrier often causes physical violence as mobs of Spanish speaking adolescence tend to see it as their sworn duty to purge you because you are a traitor to the raza! That is okay because I have dedicated a significant portion of my life to learning Spanish. One day I will and you know what when I do and my so called “gente” want to claim me and all my success… I will turn my back on them just like they turned their on me. This is the kind of resentment that THEY caused via their ignorance.

  9. CRG
    CRG says:

    You’re not Latina. You’re not even hispanic.
    1. You don’t speak Spanish. The word Hispanic comes from “hispania” which is Latin for Spain.
    2. You are not a Latina or a Latin in simpler terms. You are “brown”, right? So that means you are of Native American descent, not of Spaniards, people who are actually Latins. This groups includes the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians, the Catalans, the Galicians, and the French.
    3. You only think you are Latina because the US has made you believe so.

    • GringainSpain
      GringainSpain says:

      I could not disagree more with CRG, especially as s/he seems to have completely confused language families with race and ethnicity. Believe me, Spanish people are not “Latins”- although their languages come from a Latin-based root.
      You are absolutely Latina or Hispanic or Chicana or whatever term you prefer, if that is what you identify with and your family’s background. There are many Italian-Americans who are also far-removed from their immigrant family’s roots, however they have embraced aspects of their family culture as their own, generations down the line.
      As for learning Spanish, as you said, you’ve got a lot of baggage. Your parents thought they were doing the right thing for you, yet you wish you also spoke the language. Besides immersing yourself in music and putting in the hours (that is all language is, hours and hours of meaningful imput)- you can do differently by your children if that is what you want to do.
      un abrazo

  10. Yani
    Yani says:

    My sister and I understand spanish but don’t speak it. As puerto rican females married to gringo’s 🙂 we would like to learn spanish to teach them and our children.. what is the best way to learn. website, rosetta stone, books? any suggestions…

  11. Eva
    Eva says:

    I don’t know what it is with us Mexican Americans, we are embarrassed to speak Spanish Spanish for some reason. I am married to a man who is from Mexico and we mainly speak Spanish in our house. My two eldest kids speak Spanish well, I can’t say the same for my third child. I taught him to to speak English first, now I hate myself for it. I did a disservice to him by not teaching him spanish first. When we get together with family that speaks Spanish, he has no interaction because he can’t really communicate. I just feel so bad!! The last couple if years I started to speak more spanish and he seems to understand more. However, I don’t think he will ever be fluent :(. That is something that I took away from him and will have to live with the rest if my life!!

    • carmel
      carmel says:

      Eva, it’s great that you are teaching your children Spanish. It will help them be more comfortable within their culture and will definitely help in their future careers. More and more job adds are requesting fluency in English and Spanish. I do not know your childhood background, but from your post I do know that you speak spanish. There are chicanos, and Latinas like myself whose lack of spanish speaking skills are a product of generations of the U.S government and their assimilation efforts (esp. in schools), or even in the present day where English still rules in education and the job market. You say that you don’t know what is wrong with us Mexican-Americans who are embarrassed to speak spanish for some reason. It’s definitely not easy to understand if you have grown up speaking spanish and are fluent. It’s difficult for anyone to be out of their comfort zone and speak a language that is not their first language, especially if you’re ostracized by your own people when you try. You’re seen as not ‘authentic.’ There’s nothing shameful in trying to learn the language of your ancestors. Many people have their opinions of what makes a latino/Hispanic/ or what you will, but language is not the only factor, though pretty important in connecting with the people in your culture. Our culture, our people need to be more accepting and understanding in order for us all to move forward, to conserve our cultures, and make positive change in our communities. We keep separating ourselves by whose authentic and what not and that’s doing nothing for us. I also have a few latino friends who were once native spanish speakers but who now struggle to speak spanish with their parents and are ashamed. It also doesn’t help that their parents put them down for it, even when their children are trying. And please don’t give up on your son, it’s never too late to learn the language. He may just thank you for it someday.

  12. Dulce Bocanegra Perez
    Dulce Bocanegra Perez says:

    I thought this story was very interesting. I am a first generation mexican – american but I speak fluent spanish. Although I cannot relate to you completely, I do understand the struggle you convey of a lost language… Thank you for posting this story… All the more reason to make sure my future children speak spanish fluently. Gracias, buen dia.

  13. Camillia Villate
    Camillia Villate says:

    Hi Denise,
    I can completely relate to you, my parents came here when they were 2 or 3 and spoke english most of there lives, thankfully because of my grandma I was able to understand 95% of what people say to me in spanish but now I find myself not being able to put sentences together confidently, I was wondering if you’re doing anything to become fluent? Its a goal of mine but don’t know where to start or how to go about it.

  14. muriel
    muriel says:

    i think is a pain in the ass, when a MEXICAN doesnt speak spanish just because they have always lived in the usa,because i suppose you people have double citizenship don´t you? i am mexican,married to an american, i am very proud of speaking both languages, i must say my english is not perfect, but i understand everybody and thats just great! i feel i´m a smart chick and my son is learning both lenguages and that´s it! why to speak only one if you can speak 2? it gives you great advantages…i think all of you who refuse to speak spanish are just too polluted by the idea of being “american” but it is so sad, to see that you people look more like the indigena people in oaxaca playing stupid by not speaking spanish at all, is ridiculous and you should feel embarrased of yourself.

    • 6li6
      6li6 says:

      That’s not fair to say, but I can understand where you are coming from. What one looks like, however, doesn’t correlate to who one is. That is the question of identity.


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