As Latinxs, many expectations and assumptions are placed on us by family and our community because of our identities. Many of these assumptions may make us feel we do not belong if we don’t meet them or are “othered”. For example, when you start at a university and notice that there are not many other people who look like you in your class. You may start to worry more about the differences between you and others rather than the commonalities. Now, in addition to feeling othered by people from different backgrounds, add a layer of “otherness” from those from the same background. That is the experience that Latinxs in the United States who do not speak Spanish experience. They are frequently “othered” not just by non-Latinxs but also by their community. All because of an assumption that all Latinxs should speak Spanish.
If you are Latinx and do not speak Spanish you have likely experienced this judgment firsthand. What is troubling is that this kind of bullying is not just confined to in-person settings; it also manifests as cyberbullying. In preparation for this article, I did a quick search through my social media platforms, “non-Spanish speaking Latinx.” In my search results, a lot of content from Latinx creators focused on judgment and shame. While these comments and statements may arise from ignorance, they are incredibly hurtful. In addition, shame has a larger impact on an individual’s mental health. It can lead to anxiety and depression symptoms and feelings of worthlessness. This can lead to individuals isolating themselves from their loved ones and community. It can also make them feel discouraged about their attempts to reconnect with their cultural roots and impact both personal and even professional development. For example, they may not engage in certain social events with their family or hesitate to apply for jobs where they are expected to speak Spanish based on their Latinx appearance.
There are many ways to cope with this shame. The first is to find a support network and identify safe places. For example, there are just as many, if not more, Latinx individuals and content creators challenging the judgment and redefining the narrative of Latinx identity. There is a movement to reclaim a previously derogatory term, “No Sabo Kid,” where people take pride in their bicultural identity instead of feeling ashamed by their limited or non-existent Spanish speaking abilities. This movement, especially on social media, is an empowering reminder that not speaking Spanish does not make you less Latinx. Many non-Spanish-speaking Latinx individuals also combat the shame through starting to learn or relearn Spanish.
Another way to cope with shame is by engaging in self-compassion. It is important to recognize that sometimes the shame comes from within, from our expectations of what it means to be Latinx. Sometimes it can be hard to have compassion for our experiences, but it can be comforting to recognize that there are underlying reasons for not being fluent in Spanish.
There are numerous reasons why some Latinx individuals do not speak Spanish. For some, it was a matter of survival, a decision their parents made to ease the assimilation process. It is important to remember that not too long ago, corporal punishment was still permitted in schools, and many Latinx students, along with other immigrants or children of immigrants, were punished for speaking their native languages in school. I witnessed how speaking any language other than English was discouraged and met with reprimand during my elementary school years. While times have changed, many still feel unsafe speaking their native language and choose to have their children assimilate.
Another reason some Latinxs do not speak Spanish is that it is not their primary language. Not all Latin American countries have Spanish as their primary language (for example, Portuguese in Brazil), and even some immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries may have initially learned an Indigenous language as their primary language, with Spanish being a secondary language.
Additionally, for people who are fourth or fifth generation, over time Spanish ceased to be spoken in their family. This could be attributed to efforts to assimilate or just the gradual loss of fluency over time. However, not speaking Spanish does not necessarily imply a lack of understanding. I’ve observed this in my own family, where the younger generation can comprehend Spanish but lacks the confidence/vocabulary to speak it. Personally, despite Spanish being my first language, I often feel insecure about my proficiency in the language because I speak it with an accent and have a limited vocabulary.
Despite Latinx individuals who do not speak Spanish continuing to face judgments, there is a growing movement to expand our understanding of what it means to be Latinx in the United States. This movement is centered on redefining what it means to be Latinx to be more inclusive of the diversity within and uplifting those differences.
Let’s keep challenging the assumption that all Latinxs must speak Spanish by speaking out against discrimination and prejudice. Remember that we are in this together.
Si Se Puede!
Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.