There is a particular shame associated with being a Latino in the United States: you may not speak Spanish, and if you do, you will never speak it well enough.
I know I grew up with this sometimes not–so–secret–shame, as did many of my friends. In some places, such as Texas, there were historical and very tangible reasons for this. Older generations were not only incessantly chastised for speaking Spanish in public, or in school in particular, but were punished — sometimes physically — for speaking their family’s language.
In other places, and as with most of that immigrant groups that came to this country, proficiency in Spanish is just lost over the generations, as assimilation and other priorities take hold in daily life. I myself spoke very basic “kitchen Spanish” until I studied in Mexico my junior year of college with the explicit goal to learn to speak well, as well as read and write well in Spanish.
The funny thing is, once I got back, I had somehow moved from the “Please don’t judge me for my bad Spanish” part of the continuum one to the “Stop acting like you’re better than me because you speak Spanish well” end of the continuum. Suffice to say, at least in my experience, no one can ever possibly win in this faux debate.
These days, I can barely get through conversation in just English or just Spanish without wanting to switch to the other. My tongue has evolved from English (with great effort to switch to Spanish), to fluency in Spanish, to somehow managing to think in both languages, depending on the most appropriate context. I’m fluent in Spanglish now.
The endgame is, nobody wins when we’re playing mind games with each other as to who is “more Latino” because they speak Spanish. Because even when you do speak Spanish, the odds that you’ll speak it as well as English are pretty slim, I know for myself the seeming endless landscape of the English language totally overshadows the field of view I see in Spanish. Which leads me to ask, what game are we really playing here?
If you don’t speak Spanish, that’s okay, you can learn if you really want to. If you speak Spanish más o menos, that’s okay, you can stay that way or learn more if you’d like. If you speak Spanish, great, you’re fortunate and could make the world a better place by sharing your knowledge. As Latinos increasingly become woven into the fabric of Americana, I think it’s important that we recognize that while language is very important, it’s not the only thing that makes us who we are.