Language and culture are intertwined, and many Latino Americans are seeking to learn or improve their Spanish to form deeper connections with family and their own identities.
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When Christina Mangurian’s abuelita was diagnosed with leukemia, Mangurian and her mother were very involved in the older woman’s care. Mangurian would sit by her abuelita’s side in the hospital, and when she was discharged, she would stay at Mangurian’s parents’ house.
Mangurian’s first language is English, and her abuelita’s first language was Spanish.
“Her English was maybe as good as my Spanish, so our relationship was really loving, but I could never ask her things like, ‘Tell me about what it was like when you were younger,’ or ‘What do you think happens after you die?’” Mangurian said.
She wished she could really have gotten to know her abuelita. But that would have required a fluency she did not have.
Mangurian is a professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and biostatistics, as well as the vice chair for diversity and health equity at UC San Francisco. The nuances in communication that she missed with her abuelita are absent as well in her conversations with her Spanish-speaking patients.
Growing up in a bicultural household — with an Ecuadorian mother and Armenian father — in Miami during the early ‘70s, she learned Spanish from speaking to her Ecuadorian abuelitos. At the time, Mangurian said, her family members and other immigrants were trying to make sure their children were very “American,” which, to them, meant “speaking English only.”
For some Latin Americans, like Mangurian, not being fluent in their family’s heritage language — the language spoken in the home that’s different from the dominant language in the country — hinders but doesn’t sever their connection to their culture. For others, though, language loss can be a shameful experience. That has led to a recent resurgence of Latino Americans who want to reclaim their language.
How language is lost
Mangurian’s experience with language is common in second- or third-generation Latino Americans.
Veronica Benavides, founder of the Language Preservation Project, said her parents didn’t communicate with her in Spanish because they were physically punished for speaking the language in school in South Texas when they were kids. Later, they were told that teaching their children Spanish would confuse them in the classroom.
Pew Research Center found that in 2021, 72% of Latinos ages 5 and older spoke English proficiently, an increase from 59% in 2000. This increase is driven by the growth in U.S.-born Latinos.
The research also showed that the percentage of Latinos who speak Spanish at home declined from 78% in 2000 to 68% in 2021. Among the U.S.-born population, it has decreased from 66% to 55%.
“Even though the share of Latinos who speak Spanish at home has declined, the number who do so has grown from 24.6 million in 2000 to 39.3 million in 2021,” the Pew Center wrote.
The human development and family science departments of Oklahoma State and Iowa State universities published a study in 2021 calling this type of loss among second- and third-generation immigrants “shared language erosion.” That’s the process of adolescents improving their English-language skills while simultaneously losing or failing to develop their heritage language; at the same time, their parents acquire English at a much slower rate.
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The study found that communication is a “mechanism through which families are constituted and defined, as well as through which children are influenced and guided.” It also functions as a symbol of a person’s identity, promoting a sense of belonging and connectedness.
Losing language skills can weaken those links. When “adaptation into a new culture (a process known as acculturation) changes an individual’s proficiency in one or more languages, it can alter a sense of connection to one’s culture and people, including a connection to one’s family,” the study reported.
Not being able to communicate affects how a person creates and sustains relationships because speaking the same language is essential to sharing thoughts and feelings. The study found that shared language erosion results in deterioration of parent-child relationships due to linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, limitations on parents’ ability to communicate their life wisdom and to effectively monitor and discipline their children, and aggravation of preexisting deficiencies in parent-child attachment.
The Language Preservation Project conducted a study on Latinos in the Denver area who lost their heritage language, and Benavides said it found two major themes: People felt pride when they could speak their heritage language and shame when they couldn’t.
The study shaped her organization’s work with parents and educators on how to sustain one’s heritage language and pass it on to future generations.
Benavides said it’s important to them that program participants understand that language loss doesn’t happen because of an individual’s personal failure, but because of historic and prevailing systemic barriers.
Before getting into language-learning methods and materials, they teach participants about Native American boarding schools, English-only laws and assimilation in the classroom. We “help participants understand how restricting language is a colonialist tool to control and access power,” she said.
“We also help participants examine how viewing some languages as more ‘prestigious’ is an insidious cultural phenomenon rooted in racism.”
Lizdelia Piñón, an advisor to the Texas State Board of Education and a former bilingual educator, often instructs her students and their parents on the importance of speaking Spanish at home.
The Linguistic Society of America says the assumption that being bilingual in Spanish and English would be a disadvantage to immigrants and their children is not valid. In fact, the society says, research shows that being bilingual carries a number of potential advantages, such as “more flexible thinking.”
In 2016 Patricia Gándara, co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, published a study on the economic value of bilingualism in the U.S., which found that employers prefer bilingual applicants across all sectors of the economy.
But because maintaining a first language other than English isn’t typically supported in a child’s K-12 education, there are too few bilingual teachers in the U.S. That’s true in California school districts too, where the Learning Policy Institute recently reported a shortage. There are some optional dual-immersion schools in California to promote bilingualism, and the state’s high school graduation standards include a requirement to study a language other than English — but only for one year, and it can be evaded by taking art or career technical education classes.
“So [we are] trying to change these deficit mind-sets in all the systemic places — from legislation, to the district level, school, classroom [and] to even how the teacher talks to a student,” Piñón said.
“We need to get our kids to be bilingual, whatever it takes, because we’re just giving them future capital,” she added.
How language affects identity and mental health
Though the lack of Spanish fluency is common among second- and third-generation Latinos, it can often result in teasing by family and friends. The name-calling — labeling someone pocho, gringo or “too American to be Mexican,” for example — can often be passed off as cariño, or joking with endearment.
But it can manifest into shame, and sometimes that shame can stop a person from wanting to practice the language or pass it down to future generations.
All of these different feelings can lead Latinos who aren’t fluent in Spanish to doubt their connection to their Latino culture or identity.
But what does being “Latino enough” even mean? David Hayes-Bautista is the director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, and this is one of his main research topics.
“I can assure you that there are 62.1 million Latinos in 2020, which means there are 62.1 million different ways of experiencing being Latino,” he said.
Hayes-Bautista reminds Mexican Americans that Spanish wasn’t the primary language of Mexico until the country was colonized by Spain. Today, Mexico’s official languages are Spanish and Nahuatl — an Uto-Aztecan language.
Hayes-Bautista says your narrative, your family’s narrative and the part you have in that make you Latino.
If and when you decide to relearn Spanish, part of the work will be understanding why English became your first language and unpacking the feelings of shame and doubt that comes with lacking fluency, said Aurelio Montemayor, the family engagement coordinator for the Intercultural Development Research Assn.
“You’re perfect the way you are, and if you want to learn more Spanish, hay una manera,” Montemayor said. There is a way.
Community and language
Six years ago, Wendy Ramirez and Jackleen Rodriguez co-founded Spanish Sin Pena, a safe space where adults can learn Spanish at their own pace.
After a student signs up for the platform, Ramirez and her team assess the student’s Spanish literacy level and offer support and guidance on how to access the pre-recorded lessons independently. Students can also sign up for other virtual opportunities such as a book club, grammar lessons, small group conversation practice, cultura lessons and panels with guest speakers.
“One of our favorite quotes from one of our students is, ‘Come to learn this language and stay for the group therapy,’” Rodriguez said.
They aren’t mental health professionals, but they have created a community where students can be vulnerable about their relationship with the language. When students share their stories of shame, guilt and self-doubt, others in the group can relate.
“There’s so many other people that may or may not feel Latina enough and have mixed emotions about their identity and it can feel like a lot to unpack if you don’t ever really sit down and think about it,” Rodriguez said.
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The nonjudgmental space is what gave somatic therapist Andrea Bayón, one of Spanish Sin Pena’s first students, the courage to try to become fluent in Spanish.
“I never would have thought that I could do that, [because] it felt like my window had closed,” she said.
Before, if Bayón spoke in Spanish around family and made a mistake, her relatives’ swift corrections made her “want to shrink.” She still makes mistakes but now doesn’t shy away from speaking in Spanish with her family — or her children, who attend a dual Spanish and English immersion middle school.
Aside from language acquisition, Bayón said the program helped her reconnect with her identity.
“I’ve gotten my soul back, my culture back, and that’s the honest truth,” she said. “Because words are just words, but the access that I’ve had to finding my roots [with their help] is what I will forever be grateful for.”
Ramirez and Rodriguez say the goal of their program isn’t necessarily that students walk away being 100% fluent in Spanish. They want their students to walk away more confident.
That confidence may never be 100%, but it’s enough to motivate them to meet their goal. “It’s more like, you do the work, you learn, you grow and then you continue to grow,” Ramirez said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.