Liz Alarcón: So here’s a topic that comes up. Well, literally, anytime a group of Latinos get together. I’m talking about the ever present questions about how we communicate. How should we talk to each other, to both be ourselves while preserving our roots in English, in Spanglish, in Spanish, all or none of these? What do you think Maribel?
Maribel Quezada Smith: It’s such a difficult and complex issue for me sometimes to discuss. It should be very simple, right? Because honestly, sometimes I really think it doesn’t matter, but with the way that I was raised, I’m from Mexico originally, and as an immigrant, I was raised to be very, very proud of who I was and that included speaking Spanish. So in my house, we spoke Spanish. And as I grew older, I always felt this pride associated with the fact that I could speak fluently and I could write it. And I did at times feel that it was very improper to speak Spanglish. So, but I’ve gone through a little bit of a transformation. And I think that I’ve learned to embrace different things when it comes to Spanglish. I still struggle though. I have to say sometimes with the fact that I was taught it was improper. And I think that’s still kind of like a little chip on my shoulder, that’s like, oh no, it’s not okay to speak Spanglish or it’s not okay. Not to speak it properly.
Liz Alarcón: I feel that so much. I also grew up as I’ve shared here on the podcast before with very strict parents who made me speak Spanish, very quote unquote correctly. And so I have that background, but I also love reggaeton, Maribel, and we know that not only is that in Spanglish, but there are words that are completely unique to that genre and, and to so many different countries in Latin America, there’s all this slang and there are blurred lines now, right? Between what is Spanish? What is English? How do we speak? And so, there’s really no right way to communicate. It’s as long as we’re feeling it and, and feeling in confianza and doing it our way.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Yeah. I mean, I think that being authentic to who you are is the most important thing, but I do think there’s still a part of me that very much appreciates the special feeling that comes from understanding the language in its true form.
Liz Alarcón: And you’re not the only one who feels that way, Maribel. This is a topic like we started off this conversation saying that always comes up like Latinidad is often so tied to the language and Spanish is such an important part of our family traditions and of us identifying as Latinos. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna talk about on this episode. The main question is, are you Latino if you don’t speak Spanish? And to dive deeper, we have several conversations to share with you all. First up, you’re gonna hear our producer, Ray, who sits down to chat with our news editor, Frank, on their shared feelings around Latinidad and their own upbringing and complicated relationship with not speaking Spanish.
Ray Aguilera: So I’m wondering if you could tell us just a little bit about how Spanish was passed down in your family or, not passed down as it were.
Frank Lopez: I knew, I knew words that my mom would use. Right. You know, and not necessarily the bad ones, but I wouldn’t know, you know, uh, you know, put this in the cajon right. Or, you know, or, or, or, uh, mijo, et cetera, et cetera. So she, she would use certain words and phrases where I knew what she was saying, but it was not, bilingual by any means.
Ray Aguilera: Right. Okay. So you were never taught Spanish.
Frank Lopez: I was never taught Spanish. My siblings were not taught Spanish and my cousins who are fully Mexican American, they don’t speak Spanish either. My mom is depending on how you might define it, either a first-generation or multiple generations. But she grew up only speaking Spanish. But she ended up attending an English speaking school. And, um, she did talk about how at the school students would be disciplined if they spoke Spanish in the class. There was a big push for assimilation and you’re in America and this is Mexican-American, now you’re a Mexican American and speak English. So I did not grow up speaking Spanish.
Ray Aguilera: So one thing I want to ask you, do you have a, what I call taco Spanish? Like, can you, can you order.
Frank Lopez: Can I order it? Can I order food and, and, and, uh, in Spanish? So I can, and I, um, if I’m going to like a Mexican restaurant or one of these places where you’re, uh, I don’t want to sound gringo. Right. You know, uh, necessarily right. You know, so there’s like, oh, you know, I need to show them that I, that I, you know, I can speak this.
Ray Aguilera: But you did take Spanish in high school. How many years did you take?
Frank Lopez: Yeah. So I did four years in high school. My mom would speak Spanish on the phone when she didn’t want the kids knowing what she was saying.
Ray Aguilera: The big question where investigating in this episode is can you be Latino if you don’t speak Spanish? And I’m curious what you would have to say about that.
Frank Lopez: Yes, I think that Latinos are, we are so diverse there’s already so much difference there, and also the way Spanish is spoken.
Ray Aguilera: Right, right.
Frank Lopez: So, you know, if we’ve been here for generations, I think the chances of us speaking Spanish or are slimmer too, right? If we don’t speak Spanish or we not Latino? Um, no, I think that we are, I think it just goes back to, um, to our roots and, and I think culturally identifying with and connecting with those roots.
Ray Aguilera: Do you think in terms of like the work we do at Pulso, has your lack of Spanish come up? In terms of like reception from our audience or. I’m thinking of like things like comments. I mean, every time I pronounce a Spanish word in a video, you know, I get comments from people about my terrible accent. No, I probably don’t speak Spanish. And you know, I’m just wondering if that’s come up for you and like, how does that feel? Like how do you take that in?
Frank Lopez: Um, I will say that what I’ve, um, when there’s been videos of me on Instagram reels almost always, there is a comment about someone say, who’s this white dude or something along this lines. Um, you know, it used to bother me when I would hear stuff like that because to me, people are denying me, my heritage, which I connect with. So like, who are you to say what I am, right? And so that would make me angry. That would make me feel like less than, than make me feel like I need to go out and prove more. Now I think of, I actually now kind of laugh. I do laugh when I see those comments or like, okay. Yeah. I knew this was coming. Um,
Ray Aguilera: Right. How do you respond to people that criticize you for not being able to speak the language?
Frank Lopez: So people have said why you don’t speak Spanish, you’re Latino. Why didn’t your mom teach you how to speak Spanish? Shame on your mom and that’s so, so offensive because it comes from all sorts of different people. But also like, you don’t know my family background. And I get younger Latinos now are speaking Spanish at home because the assimilation thing is not a thing anymore. Now it’s like, let’s be our culture and yeah.
Ray Aguilera: It’s much more like bilingual cultural pride.
Frank Lopez: Absolutely. Yes. It is embraced now, um, jobs look for it. Um, it is a cultural pride thing now, whereas before it was like bury that because we need to assimilate. So, so there’s a difference in terms of the time there’s a difference in terms of family experience? What do you say? What what’s your.
Ray Aguilera: Um, yeah, I mean, you know, depending on how you count, I’m second or third generation but, uh, my parents didn’t speak Spanish, you know, like functionally. My grandparents on both sides spoke Spanish, but only sparingly used it at home. I’m two generations removed from it now. Do I wish I could speak Spanish fluently? Yes, absolutely. Of course. Um, have I tried? Yes, sort of, but it’s hard to do as an adult. I mean, I always say like, if I could go back in a time machine, the one thing I would tell myself as a 15 year old in high school, it’s like, pay attention in Spanish and nothing beyond algebra one is going to matter, you know, like focus on that.
Frank Lopez: You know when Julian Castro, former HUD secretary, former mayor of San Antonio and former democratic presidential did not grow up speaking Spanish and I remember Julian ended up doing an interview about it that I heard somewhere. And it was just nice to be able to hear like someone who everyone knows that also had similar experience.
Liz Alarcón: Ray and Frank definitely share some lived experiences on this whole speaking Spanish conversation. I loved the part about taco Spanish. I had never even heard it called that, that whole concept of getting pronunciation, right when ordering food. Whew. That sounds really stressful. So thankful to have heard their perspectives and an extra thank you goes to Frank for giving us the most perfect segue for our next guest. Joining us now on the puso podcast is none other than Julian Castro’s brother Congressman Joaquin Castro, who has been representing Texas’s 20th congressional district in the United States house of representatives since 2013.
Tell us about the relationship that you had with the speaking Spanish or the Spanish language growing up.
Joaquin Castro: I’m second generation Mexican American. My grandmother had come from Coahuila, Mexico as a young orphan when she was about six or seven years old, and, uh, we grew up on the west side and you like everybody else in the neighborhood, we didn’t have much, uh, we lived by very modest means, but it was an incredible neighborhood with incredible people that always felt like family. Growing up, that was the only world that I knew was, uh, this heavily Latino neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio. My grandmother had come from Mexico, so she was fluent in Spanish. She, she watched, uh, the telenovelas when we were growing up and, always talked about,
Liz Alarcón: Sábado Gigante I’m sure.
Joaquin Castro: She watched Sábado Gigante, that’s right. It was interesting to see a woman who was firmly rooted in where she came from, but also had adopted this new American culture, um, and she spoke Spanish. My mom spoke Spanish for the most part. Uh, but my mom and her generation had been punished in school. If they were caught speaking Spanish and for about 50 years in Texas, it was illegal to speak Spanish in school. So it was, it was formerly illegal in the law to speak Spanish in school. And you would get a spanked or punished or somehow, derided, if the teachers heard you speaking Spanish. Uh, and you know, because of that, uh, people in my mom’s generation and places like Texas, Often didn’t pass along the language to their kids.
Liz Alarcón: So show us a bit of what your house was like growing up. Was it that your mom and your grandmother would speak in Spanish or Spanglish, and then your mom would speak to you and Julian in English, and then there would be this hodgepodge of, of language at home, even though externally and in the real world, you all would speak English or did it look a bit different?
Joaquin Castro: Yeah, it was my grandmother speaking to us often in Spanish and sometimes in English and my brother and I usually responding in English. And you know, so it was, it was a little bit chaotic English and Spanish going different ways. And ultimately as a second generation Latino, uh, coming away with an appreciation for the language, a pretty decent understanding of the Spanish language, but not the same ability to speak it very well, obviously that my grandmother had, or that others who are direct immigrants for example, might have. Um, and I’ve said that before I die, I’d love to learn the language perfectly.
Liz Alarcón: You know, on one hand. Being Latino is not defined by speaking Spanish, but on the other hand, there is a sense of pride and connection that we do feel. How do you deal with that tension in your professional life? Have you been criticized for not speaking Spanish?
Joaquin Castro: Yeah, sure. I mean, I guess criticized, you know, sometimes online, I guess sometimes people will make comments. Sometimes people will ask you mostly folks that are Spanish speakers will ask you, hey, why don’t you speak Spanish? Right. I think a lot of that also is devoid of knowing the history of, of, you know, where my parents and my grandparents and what their generation went through in a place like Texas, uh, where again, you were, they literally beat the language out of people in school. Uh, they attached a negative value, a harmful value to speaking the Spanish language in public. Uh, but most, especially in school. And so for me, it’s not a surprise then that there was a generation or a few generations of Latinos who were reluctant to pass on that pain, so to speak. To their kids and wanted them to master English, wanted them to speak English. And I don’t even think my parents or my mom did that consciously. I don’t think she necessarily sat down and said, Hey, I’m really not going to focus on you learning Spanish because I don’t want you to, to face consequences. I just think that that was, it was just became so ingrained in a whole generation of people. Over time, you just tend to have a kind of losing of the language throughout the generations. You know? So for me, it becomes hard to sort out. How much of, it was just kind of a quote unquote, natural, uh, loss of language over the years. And how much of it was that systemic racism that people faced, uh, the institutionalized racism that they faced as Spanish speakers.
Liz Alarcón: It’s as if Latinos can’t win because if we speak Spanish, we’re criticized. If we don’t speak Spanish, we’re criticized. Where does that leave us now?
Joaquin Castro: I think that one of the fundamental problems that the Latino community in the United States faces is that Americans, for the most part, don’t know who Latinos are and don’t know where the Latino story fits into the American story. And that includes on issues of everything from our successes, from the discrimination that we faced, from issues around language, all of those things have been left out of the telling of American history and state histories for the most part. Some states are getting better about it and have gotten better about it than others. But when I was growing up in Texas, there were hardly any Latino figures, men or women, who were included in state history textbooks or American history textbooks. And so the net effect is that there is this void that can be dangerous when it’s mixed with, historical stereotypes and dangerous political rhetoric. I think that’s what happened in El Paso for example, in, in 2019, in the summer of 2019, uh, where you had somebody who had bought in to the heated political rhetoric of the time and the historical stereotypes, and really probably had not learned very much at all about who Latinos are. You’re talking about a group that is almost 20% of the country. And for our story, our successes and our struggles not to be known, I think is a failure in the American narrative.
Liz Alarcón: I couldn’t agree more with, with your analysis of where we are. At Pulso, we try to do the second half of that, which you’re talking about, which is educating our own and sharing our own history and our own struggles to our own community, which we sometimes don’t know about. But the fight on the other side of that, you’re working hard to change to make sure we have more representation is a long one. How do you keep your Latino identity and traditions alive at home with your kids?
Joaquin Castro: Uh, well, you know, my wife is from the Rio Grande valley and, uh, she spent a lot of time because a lot of her family’s in Reynosa, Mexico. And I feel like it’s just so ingrained in what we do every day that I don’t, I don’t feel like I have to make a special effort, um, you know, to pass along the culture of being Mexican American. It’s just, you know, even recently when we celebrated Easter, for example, and the cascarones and all the traditions that you see for Easter, uh, those are just, uh, just ingrained in who I am and who my wife.
Liz Alarcón: Are you teaching them Spanish?
Joaquin Castro: Yeah, that’s a great question. You asked my wife actually, who is fluent in Spanish, uh, insist that they learn Spanish and that they become bilingual, which I wholeheartedly support. And so they’re at a, at a bilingual school now, but I see even with my kids, this pull towards speaking English when they can, and not speaking Spanish, right. Even when we want them to practice, for example, uh, this reluctance sometimes to practice and instead to speak in English. And so I wonder as I look kind of 10 years into the future for them, or 15 years in the future, whether they’ll in fact end up, uh, being fluent in Spanish even though we’re kind of making this effort to help them learn it.
Liz Alarcón: I will say, as someone who is bilingual myself, It took a lot of gray hairs from my parents, Rep. Castro, for me to speak Spanish fluently now. It was one of those home situations where if I responded in English, my parents wouldn’t answer me. I would throw a fit, uh, and they still would not answer me no matter what I needed. So I, I know the sacrifice that it took and the. And the deep commitment that it takes to, to pass on the language to that extent in a place where, you know, you are speaking English in school and growing up in Miami definitely helps as well. But, um, just good luck with that journey. What do you say to other Latinos who are struggling with their identity? Because they can’t speak Spanish. Some, some words of wisdom and encouragement to end.
Joaquin Castro: Well, first I think, you know, be proud of who you are and the community that you come from. And there are many things make up being Latino or Latina. And language is a great part of it, but it’s not the only part of it. Um, and I hope that everybody feels like they’re part of this community and has a stake in our community. And also hope that people will take some time to understand the histories of the Latino community, whether it’s what folks experienced in New York or Florida or in the Southwestern United States or the Midwest. Uh, and I think with that historical understanding, we can appreciate why people are the way they are now and appreciate, I think, each other better in the coming years.
Liz Alarcón: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation that is a wrap.
Maribel Quezada Smith: I know that at the beginning of the episode, I started saying how I felt that it was still improper to speak Spanish, quote, unquote, incorrectly. And that I have this struggle with Spanglish sometimes, but I’ve been thinking a little bit after listening and I think that Spanish is more about a feeling. Sometimes you don’t have to be fluent and you don’t have to speak it correctly all the way, but I think what really connects us as Latinos is actually the understanding of some of the language meanings. What I’m trying to say is when you say something like “ay” just saying that I is an understanding among Latinos or when you say something like “mi corazÃ³n” my love. That’s an understanding. That’s a passion, that’s an emotion that we all have together. So it’s not so much a full language ability. It’s more so the understanding of the core words that you can’t translate that I think make you Latino.
Liz Alarcón: Absolutely Maribel, and I think that what all of us share you, me, Frank, Ray and Rep Castro, is that sense of pride, right? And we know that even if we can’t fully speak Spanish, we wanna pass it down to our kids any way we can, the feeling, the language, the words, and I think we can all agree on that.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And if I tell my son “ven aca” he knows exactly what that means, and it’s not the literal translation that we’re worried about. It’s the feeling that I’m conveying. And if he can get that, I’m happy, even if he’s not completely fluent at the end of the day.
Liz Alarcón: And you know what, while we figure out the best way to do it for our own families, the one thing that we can know for sure is that our Latinidad should not be questioned while we figure all of it out.