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Silencing of Spanish for survival: Why 2nd generation Hispanics don't speak their native language

(Shutterstock file photo)

Full disclosure: I do not speak Spanish. Growing up in McAllen, Texas, I understand the language to a degree of absolute confidence, yet I rarely attempt to speak Spanish aloud.

I know I won't pull it off in a manner that is comparable to my English, and that stops me from even trying—or that is my rationalization.

My father, who came to the U.S. at eight from Mexico, was punished for speaking Spanish at the Catholic School he attended in his new land.

I heard those painful anecdotes in English, in a house where I also learned my American accent from watching "Three's Company" and "Rockford Files" reruns.

In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz explained his unease with Spanish to a Univision reporter after being asked if he could answer questions in Español: "I understand almost everything in Spanish, but I can't speak as well as I'd like."

Switching back to English, Cruz said, "I have the problem of the second-generation immigrant." He added, "To be honest, what I really spoke at home was Spanglish."

The reasons for this second-generation immigrant's unease in Spanish are complex, but the source of this complication seems tied to an immigrant's sense of survival.

Virginia Talley, who runs Hyde Park's The Language House, has very personal reasons for trying to get her students to experience the fullness of the Spanish language. The Language House offers private and group Spanish conversation classes, and in pre-COVID days even offered immersion trips to Oaxaca, Mexico for those who wanted to explore the land as well as the language.

Students of the The Languge House go on a hike in Argentina as part of an immersion trip the school offers. (The Language House)

Talley's father, a family doctor in Bastrop, had a lab tech who was originally from Mexico but never spoke his native tongue. According to Talley, the man considered Spanish taboo and did not speak it to his children due to locally perceived lower-class implications of the language.

"It was this horribly tragic thing when I look back on it," said Talley. "Where I was growing up, a lot of my friends were Hispanic… but they didn't speak it at all because, again, I think it was really looked down upon; the parents didn't even try to teach their kids."

Now Talley often sees second-generation Latino immigrants coming to her classes out of something close to guilt, or even a sense of responsibility to a lost heritage. "People feeling like they were embarrassed because they think they should be able to speak Spanish; you know, maybe it was not spoken at home, or they rejected it or they did not learn it properly."

The stigma of speaking Spanish is lifting, according to Talley; and now even those who can speak Spanish fluently seem compelled to learn it better.

While teaching Spanish 101 at Austin Community College, Talley says she was flabbergasted when she saw that everyone in her class was Latino. "I thought, 'What is going on here?' They were all heritage speakers and so their Spanish was beautiful (but), they could not write, so it was like an interesting dynamic, teaching heritage speakers basically how to write properly."

Marisol Cortez, an award-winning author who will be one of the few in-person authors featured in Austin's upcoming Texas Book Festival, knows the cultural complexities of this language issue well, and she is doing something about it.

Marisol Cortez feel internal pressure when she speaks Spanish, since she's not fluent in it. (Marisol Cortez)

A mother of a 13-year-old and a toddler, Cortez has made it a point to have her children speak both English and Spanish.

This was something that she herself did not get to experience while growing up, and it was an early impediment to her environmental activism that she had to correct.

Despite having a Mexican-American father, Cortez never heard Spanish at home. Growing up with a more natural command of English than Spanish in San Antonio was a bit of a double-edged sword for the writer.

Cortez recalls how her dad's own brand of Tex-Mex Spanish was mocked when he visited relatives in Mexico; so, the language was curiously a problem on both sides of the border.

"My dad didn't ever speak it at home," she says. "So I grew up kind of absorbing it but not speaking it at home and then anything that I am able to say in Spanish now was pretty much acquired as an adult."

The insecurity regarding her Spanish remains a slight block to her even today. She says when she speaks it she's nervous and feels internal pressure to sound more fluent than she is. But it's important to her that it stays alive in her family.

"The importance of Spanish for future generations lies in its ability to keep us tied to the struggles of our parents and grandparents," Cortez said. "It's a way of acknowledging that we stand on the shoulders of those struggles. Even as we acknowledge the reality that Spanish is a colonial language imposed on peoples original to this continent, it's also a way of keeping us connected to our neighbors, accountable to their struggles. It's an important form of solidarity."


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