We talk about bilingual Latinas and Latinas who don’t speak Spanish at all, but we don’t often speak about the semi-bilingual Latinas like myself. The ones who are about 70-75 percent fluent but don’t speak it outside of our families out of fear of mispronouncing and then being corrected—not to mention humiliated. We’re the Latinxs who feel conflicted about putting bilingual as a skill on our resumes because we can carry conversations in Spanish—just not professionally. If we practiced enough we’d make it to fluency but our lack of confidence with the language holds us back.
It’s fair to say I grew up in a bilingual home where both Spanish and English was spoken often. My parents both migrated to the states around the same time. Their families both settled into Corona, in Queens New York, which was once considered little DR. They were both in middle school and because they were young, they adapted to American life relatively quickly. They spoke only Spanish at home and only English in school. Any Spanish they might had lost throughout the years, they relearned and perfected when they decided to go back to the Dominican Republic for college.
Their English is so fluent you’d confuse them for first generation Latinxs like me. Mami especially, hardly has an accent. But their Spanish is also so fluent that if you heard them speak it, you’d never believe they migrated to the states so young. As a result, when they speak, they switch back and fourth between English and Spanish so seamlessly, you’d think they were speaking one language. It’s bilingual music to my ears.
Hearing my parents speak to each other, to relatives, friends, and to my siblings and I in both languages was my normal. I grew up in a bilingual home and when I was little I spoke to them in both. Once I started going to school, my confidence in speaking Spanish at home began to fade. Because speaking in both languages was so natural to my parents and because we grew up around our abuelos who forced us to speak in Spanish only, my folks didn’t see a need to enforce Spanish speaking at home. With time, my siblings and I slowly started to lose the language.
We spoke and still speak enough to carry conversation—even deep ones but not confidently and broken AF. My fluency has varied depending on how often I’m practicing it. When I lived with my folks I spoke it more because my abuela who also lives with them, forces us to speak Spanish only to her. When I was in an eight year relationship with a Dominican man—back in my 20s—whose parents spoke no English, I spoke it more. But today I only see abuela about once a month or so (awful I know) and all my Latino relatives and friends also speak English. There’s no pressure to practice—even working in Latin media.
But as I’ve gotten older and dated a number of white gringos and European men who don’t speak a lick of Spanish—with the exception of an ex-boyfriend from Spain—I’ve realized depending on my fellow Latinos to practice isn’t getting me anywhere closer to fluency. Especially when I’m too self-conscious and embarrassed to practice with them. It’s also made me realize that if I don’t marry or have a family with a Latin man, my future kid—if I do decide to have a kid—won’t know Spanish at all. It made me realize how important preserving my culture is and that it was time to take my goal of becoming fluent in Spanish a lot more seriously.
Latinos are hard on each other. If we don’t speak Spanish fluently we’re told, we’re not “Latino enough.” But if we say we’re going to take classes to learn Spanish, we’re laughed at for having to take classes in the first place. There’s no winning with us, which is why for years (post-high school I mean), I hesitated to take Spanish classes. It’s the same reason why I hesitated to take salsa classes—which I eventually caved in and did. It’s this ignorant mentality of the only “real” or “authentic” way of learning is at home with the family. When the reality is, for a lot of more Americanized Latinos, sometimes we need the classes to actually learn it and that’s okay. But the problem is, for a lot of Latinos so much of our identity is tied to our language, which is interesting considering the number of Latinxs living in the states that speak Spanish has declined.
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In fact, according to a Pew Research study, the number of Latinos who speak Spanish at home continues to increase due to the overall growth of the Latino population BUT the amount of Latinos who actually speak the language has decreased. All you have to do is compare the percentage of Latinxs that spoke Spanish in 2006 compared to Latinxs who spoke Spanish in 2015. The study showed that in 2006, 78 percent of Latinxs spoke Spanish at home and in 2015 it went down to 73 percent. That’s pretty significant.
I get it, because I’m technically part of that decline and I’ve seen how the disconnect between language and culture makes it hard for first, second and third generation Latinxs to struggle with their Latinx identity. I’ve been there. And while I’m old enough to finally recognize that language is not central to my cultural identity or my Latiniad, I also recognize that for me, being fluent in Spanish is important to me on a personal level. This is why I decided to hire a Spanish language tutor for this fall.
After sucking up my pride and finally caring less about what a few ignorant and small-minded folks might have to say about me taking Spanish lessons, I hit up a tutor that was highly recommended to me by a very happy client. In fact, I had eased dropped on their session while editing some articles from a Barnes & Nobles one day and asked the lady for her tutor’s email. He’s originally from Barcelona and according to her, really patient and easy to work with. I finally hit him up, weeks after receiving his info.
We had a great phone call and my first official lesson is on Thursday, August 30th. I couldn’t be more excited but a part of me was still worried about how some fellow Latinxs would respond to a Latina taking Spanish lessons. To my surprise, I received the most support and praise from my fellow Latinxs—even relatives—who were impressed that I actually took the step to take lessons. In fact, the level of support I’ve received has been so overwhelmingly good, a few Latina friends have even asked me for my tutor’s info.
It might take a while before I finally get over my “language insecurity” but I’m proud of myself for being brave enough to finally do something about it. As for my fellow Latinxs who don’t speak Spanish and aren’t necessarily interested in learning, please remember that that’s okay too. There is no “right way” to be Latinx, regardless of what society tries to instill in us. Just be you because that’s always going to be enough.