The reality of the non-Spanish-speaking Hispanic experience

Rachel Umansky-Castro, news staff

Dynasty Perez, a second-year business administration and communication studies combined major at Northeastern from San Antonio, Texas, taps on her phone with her long acrylic nails while smoothing her pin-straight hair. By the way she carries herself, she said, many assume she is Hispanic. That assumption is correct, but the assumption that she speaks Spanish is not. 

She throws up her arms describing how frustrating it is having to prove she is “Latina enough.” 

“I know who I am, so why does your opinion have to affect what I think about myself?” Perez said. Oftentimes, she has been judged for not speaking the language because other Hispanics saw it as a rejection of the culture. But for Perez, that was never her intention. 

Growing up, Perez spoke English in her household because of her father. Both of her grandparents immigrated from Mexico to the U.S., but Perez’s grandfather forced her father to learn English. 

“My dad understood where my grandfather was coming from. The way he described it, it was pretty rough,” said Perez, who embraces her Hispanic heritage through culture, food and music. “If you spoke Spanish, you were going to be degraded and treated differently in school.” 

Perez is not alone; many Hispanic Americans feel a similar sense of isolation. 

Hispanic immigrants who arrived in the United States faced discrimination and prejudice for speaking a language other than English dating back to the early 20th century. This discrimination often resulted in immigrant parents teaching English to their children to help them assimilate and fit in with American culture. However, attitudes toward the Spanish language and Hispanic culture have changed over the years, and Spanish is now widely accepted and celebrated in many parts of the United States. 

A Pew Research Center survey found in 2021 that 72% of Latinos ages 5 and older spoke English proficiently, which increased from 59% in 2000. Despite this progress, some say Hispanic Americans whodon’t speak fluent Spanish struggle with insecurity and a sense of disconnect from their heritage.

“I’ve seen it a lot,” said Cristina Pérez-Arranz, a Spanish visiting lecturer for the World Languages Center at Northeastern. “When I taught a student once who was Hispanic, I noticed how she could not pick up what I was teaching as fast [as other students]; it was very difficult,” Pérez-Arranz said. 

Born in Madrid, Pérez-Arranz has taught various levels of Spanish in the Boston area since 2017. During her time teaching, she has recognized many Hispanic students’ hardship to pick up a language after primarily only speaking English in their household. 

“I have had too many students who haven’t been as exposed [to Spanish] in their childhood for different types of reasons,” Pérez-Arranz said. “One of my students said their parents didn’t want them to be a target of racism.” 

Now, more school systems offer various language courses, an indication that language and world citizenship is encouraged. However, for Hispanic individuals, that is much more of a challenge than most people may assume.  

Ariana DeBose, who identifies as Afro-Latina and performed as Anita in the 2021 Oscar-nominated film, “West Side Story,”  feels the same way. Though many people looked up to her lauded portrayal of the character, she admitted to NBC News that she did not feel as though she was “good enough” to accurately represent Latinas because she’s not fluent in Spanish. 

Many people who identify as Hispanic and/or Latino because of their heritage feel they always have to provide an explanation to others about their lack of proficiency in the Spanish language. 

Back in the room, Perez laughs reminiscing on the number of times she has had to explain why she is Hispanic but does not speak Spanish. 

“When people ask me, ‘Do you know Spanish?’ I tell them, no.” Perez said. “I don’t even say I know some anymore — just no.” 

The history of Hispanic discrimination

The increasing non-Spanish-speaking Hispanic population can be traced back to historical discrimination and cultural assimilation that has impacted Hispanic communities for generations.

As the United States expanded westward, tensions between white settlers and Hispanic ranchers over control of the land grew more intense, eventually erupting into the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. The U.S. acquired Mexican territory with large Spanish-speaking communities after the U.S. won the war. Daniel Noemi Voionmaa, an associate professor of cultures, societies and global studies at Northeastern, noted this is a unique period in the expansion of diversity in the U.S. because it did not come about through migration. 

“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” Noemi Voionmaa said. 

However, white settlers still distrusted this new group of ‘Mexican Americans’ who had been their former adversaries in the war. This led to a period of widespread violence, discrimination and workplace exploitation against Mexican Americans that continued well into the 20th century.  

Discrimination also found its way into the classroom. Many U.S. schools banned or dismantled the use of Spanish and other non-English languages, further contributing to linguistic and cultural discrimination against Hispanic communities. In 1919, Nebraska banned not only the study of foreign languages, but also the instruction of other core subjects, such as math and science, in those languages. Other states passed similar laws around the same time. 

Although these laws were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, the years-long ban on Spanish language instruction had a significant impact on Hispanic communities. It led to the loss of Spanish language skills and cultural traditions, which continue to lack inclusion in the American education system. 

“In the U.S., schools still don’t push languages as a requirement,” Noemi Voionmaa said. “Even at the preschool level, and that’s where they could have been picking up the language more easily.” 

Despite the passing of civil rights laws in the 1960s, racial, national origin and language discrimination remain persistent problems. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that four in 10 Hispanics say they have been discriminated against for speaking Spanish or were told to “go back to their home country.” 

Despite these challenges, Hispanic populations have continued to grow and thrive, accounting for more than half of the U.S. population increase from 2010 to 2019. However, as they have become more established and integrated into the United States, Hispanics face significant hardships when it comes to defining their language and cultural identity. 

While many Hispanic immigrants were forced or expected to assimilate into American culture and give up their own cultural and linguistic heritage, many U.S.-born Hispanics may choose to assimilate out of convenience or choice. Many grow up and learn to primarily identify with American culture, which means they watch Hollywood movies and sing popular English-language songs.

Gabriela Salerno, a third-year criminal justice and political science combined major at Northeastern, felt she was pushed out of her Hispanic heritage. 

“I refused to speak Spanish because my classmates would tell me, ‘You Mexican, go back over the wall,’” Salerno said. As a result, she immersed herself in American culture, starting to only speak English even though Spanish was her first language. “I would be embarrassed to speak Spanish in public to my mom and through that, I lost touch with her growing up.” 

While most Hispanic parents still speak Spanish to their children, Pew Research Center found that this practice is becoming less common in later immigrant generations. This suggests that many Hispanic families are under pressure to assimilate and abandon their linguistic and cultural heritage in order to ‘fit in’ and succeed in the U.S.. 

“There was a negative connotation with being Hispanic at the time,” Salerno said. “When I was young it was hard to be myself because I was the only Latina in my class.” 

The future for Hispanics in the U.S. 

Over the past few decades, there has been a gradual cultural shift toward accepting Hispanics and the Spanish language in the United States. Since 2003, nationwide increasing diversity has led the Hispanic population to become the largest minority group in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As the population continues to increase, approximately 40 million people in the United States now speak Spanish at home, making it the second most spoken language in the country.

The entertainment industry has played a significant role in promoting this cultural shift, with the rise of Hispanic artists in music, film and television. In the United States, there was a 55.29% increase in album consumption of Latin music between 2020 and 2022. The success of artists such as Bad Bunny, Shakira and Lin-Manuel Miranda has contributed to dismantling stereotypes and promoting a more positive image of the Hispanic community.

Not only have Hispanics influenced global popular culture, their influence can also be seen at Northeastern. The university’s Latinx Student Cultural Center, or LSCC, serves as a welcoming environment for all students to connect with others from similar backgrounds and explore their cultural identities. 

The bright, colorful center offers different events and programming that aim to promote awareness and understanding of the Hispanic community. It also provides academic support, mentorship opportunities and scholarship resources for students. 

However, despite being of Hispanic origin, students like Perez fear that they may not fit in at the center due to the language barrier. 

Rosa Torres, the office assistant of the LSCC for over 15 years, acknowledged that many students may feel uncomfortable due to past discrimination, which is why she promotes the center to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, regardless of their fluency in Spanish. 

“We get a lot of students who come here asking, ‘Do I have to speak Spanish to be here?’ and I always say no, you don’t even have to be Hispanic,” Torres said. “If you want to know the language we’re here for you, we don’t discriminate.”

For those who want to practice their Spanish speaking, Torres and Claudio Concepcion, the student services coordinators at LSCC, host “Hora del Café,” an hour-long event every Thursday filled with coffee, snacks and Spanish conversation. 

“It is a great place to learn or practice. There are no levels. We don’t force or push anybody,” Torres said. “If you don’t know how to say something, you ask and we will help you.” 

Ziven Lopez, a first-year electrical and computer engineering combined major, attends “Hora del Café” to bridge the language gap his parents left. 

“My dad didn’t want me to have a Spanish accent when I spoke, so he didn’t teach me [it] at all,” Lopez said. Lopez felt insecure about possibly being judged; however, the LSCC pushed him to feel comfortable in making mistakes. 

“I started doing this thing with my roommate; he speaks fluent Spanish so I practice with him anytime we’re together,” Lopez said. “It gets really hard because I’m still learning but that’s the point.”

Outside of education and popular culture, the growing popularity of Spanish can also be seen in initiatives from local governments. 

The City of Boston has taken steps to make important information and services accessible to Spanish speakers. Mayor Michelle Wu established a Languages and Communications Access department that includes an in-house Spanish translator, allowing for news and resources to be provided in more languages than just English. 

“Our goal is to make the City of Boston accessible for everyone through interpretation, translation and assistive technology,” said Jenifer Vivar Wong, executive director for the Mayor’s Office of Language and Communications Access.

However, there is still room for improvement. Vivar Wong said it was only last year that the City of Boston changed how it presented its language options. “Before, all the languages were listed in English rather than allowing users to select their native language,” Vivar Wong said. This could pose accessibility difficulties for non-native English speakers. Despite these challenges, the trend toward greater inclusion of the Spanish language locally and in U.S. culture is encouraging.

Additionally, the current cultural shift toward greater acceptance and representation of diverse identities provides an opportunity for self-acceptance and empowerment.

“It’s scary to learn a language you feel you should have already known by heart, and it’s scary to make mistakes, but everyone is scared every day of their life,” Pérez-Arranz said. “You have to push past that fear and just go for it.”