Earlier this year I was intrigued by an article on the NBC Latino website. In an opinion piece by Raul A. Reyes, a question was tackled that I’m sure many of us of Latin American heritage have heard before. If you do not speak Spanish, are you less Latino? Reyes brought up San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro who became well known on the heels of his Democratic National Convention speech. Apparently Castro is not fluent in Spanish and his lack of fluency implies, by some, that his Hispanic heritage may not be perceived as authentic.
According to the article, Castro’s mother shared that speaking Spanish was discouraged when she was growing up. Presumably, as a result, the language was not passed down to her son. Like Castro, my own mother also felt discouraged from speaking Spanish as a child. My own fluency in Spanish (I consider myself fluent in conversational Spanish) came after a personal hiatus I took in 2005 when I lived in Mexico and, for a short time, in Puerto Rico. Regardless, should language be considered such a determining factor of cultural connectedness?
There are a great many cultural idiosyncrasies that define us as Latinos, aside from language. Culture is an interesting phenomenon and can be complex to understand. As a professional that works within Hispanic marketing, I encourage clients to understand the cultural nuances and preferences involved in delivering value to diverse audiences. That being said, language is certainly important within many Latino communities. At times a person’s fluency in Spanish can affect his or her perception by others. As coined by Florida State University marketing professor Felipe Korzenny, words are not simply empty vessels; they come loaded with meanings and attitudes related to culture.
Ultimately, culture will trump language at delivering the most value. I cannot deny, however, my own personal experiences with language and culture. Learning Spanish has opened doors for me that would not have been available otherwise. On the other hand, relating to individuals based on culture has contributed more to my own perception of hispanidad than Spanish ever has. I believe language and culture are very much intertwined.
In conclusion, I give this simple piece of advice: while language may get you to the door, it is cultural competence that will help you get invited in.