Am I less Latino if I don’t speak Spanish?

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro

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.

6 Comments

  1. I’ve talked about this topic with many of my Latino friends, some who speak Spanish and some who don’t.

    Those who didn’t learn Spanish tend to tell stories that indicate that they feel less a part of their community. For example, checking out in a grocery line where the checker assumes that they speak Spanish and blank stares on both ends upon realizing the incongruity. Or going to a family reunion and feeling like a bit of an outsider as relatives murmur derogatory comments.

    Those who do speak Spanish tend to tell me that they are very grateful that they do have the ability to speak Spanish, as it opens doors and makes them feel more culturally aligned as you mentioned.

    Personally, as una gringa que habla español, I tend to feel more aligned to Latin culture. Especially since I feel like my family doesn’t have such a rich culture. “Culture is an interesting phenomenon and can be complex to understand” indeed.

    And as far as marketing goes, I agree with you 100%. When working across cultures, language is a start, but cultural understanding will bridge the gap. Regardless of cultural background or language, when trying to market products, you have to dive deep into your customer’s psyche and find out what makes them tick.

  2. What one considers oneself is very personal and basically important only to oneself. (One reason why it cannot be questioned in job apps)If the Texas politician describes himself to be Latino, whether he speaks Spanish fluently or not, that’s his choice and his right.

    I was born and raised in a Southamerican country with a Latina mother
    and a German father. I can be both ‘Latina’ and ‘German’ simultaneously and for a number of reasons, mostly my ideologies, personal expectations, and biosociocultural beliefs. I consider myself both (Southamerican German), even though I no longer speak, read or write German. I also do not ‘look’ Southamerican or German- depending to most of the persons who are in front of me or where I am at (geographically)at the time.

    The upbringing roots are deep and have guided my life up until now. As far as two of my three children are concerned, none speak Spanish or identify with either of my cultures. They are just “American.” The one child born in Latin America (and “looks” Latina) understands some Spanish but considers herself LATINA in every aspect.

    There is no ‘right’ just what is comfortable and (legally) appropriate to the person.

  3. YES.
    You are a less ABLE Latino.
    Being fluent in both languages is definitely an advantage which can surely help progress and achieve your goals.

  4. A very insightful piece, Jonathan. I have lived in Puerto Rico for many years and have taken on a lot of the local culture despite growing up in the Midwest. I have been told, on more than one occasion, that I am more Puerto Rican than many Puerto Ricans. What does that mean? Who knows? I understand it to be an appreciation of the fact that I have been interested in learning about the local language and culture. Does that mean that I have forgotten my roots? No! But it does mean that I am open-minded enough to see things from the other perspective and know how to interact in culturally appropriate ways. I think those who understand more than one culture/language have the advantage in that case and can decide how they identify culturally and linguistically.

  5. Hi there, I eenjoy reading through your post. I like to write a little comment to support you.

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