Spanish-speaking has long been a fraught part of Latino identity formation, and there are many reasons why second or third generation Latinos may not be able to speak it well – not least of which is a powerful social stigma that for decades encouraged assimilation at the expense of preserving Latino cultural heritage.
Back in the day, speaking Spanish outside of the home was discouraged and even punished. In the 1960s and 1970s, students were subject to paddlings and corner-time for speaking Spanish in school. But even today, without such overt penalties, it is proving difficult to pass the language on to next generations of US-born Latinos.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that across the United States, young Latinos are speaking only English at home. Fox News Latino reports that in 2014, 37 percent of Latinos aged 5 to 17 didn’t speak any Spanish at home – a 7 percentage point jump from 2000. This trend isn’t just limited to children and teenagers. 30 percent of Latinos aged 18 to 33 only speak English at home, compared to only 20 percent in 2000.
Still, despite the growing prevalence of non-Spanish speaking Latinos in the US, the language issue is still thorny for those who find their identities or Latinidad questioned over not being able to speak Spanish.
This tension – the questioning: Am I Latino enough? Am I “American” enough? – is perfectly captured in this spoken word performance by Noel Quiñones. In his piece “8 Confessions of My Tongue,” shared by Write About Now Poetry, the Nuyorican poet beautifully explores the struggles of asserting your identity, your roots, and the culture you feel in your bones and blood, even when you can’t master its native language.
It’s a struggle that many can relate to, and also a powerful refutation of the notion that language is what defines one’s Latinidad.