“If you ask me if I am fluent in Spanish, I will tell you my Spanish is an itchy phantom limb. It is reaching for words, and only finding air.” With these words, Melissa Lozada-Oliva begins her poem, “My Spanish.” In very precise language, she accurately captures the struggles of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish.
Though the United States is now home to more Spanish speakers than Spain, families are finding it difficult to teach the language to the next generation. A Pew Research Center study finds 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. But the 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.
But this isn’t the first generation that has struggled to master Spanish. 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. For decades, a powerful social stigma encouraged assimilation at the expense of preserving our Latino cultural heritage.
In her poem, Lozada-Oliva beautifully expresses this tension and the need to assert and defend her Latinidad. She adds, “My Spanish is asking me if my parents are American, asking me if I’m white yet.”
Check out the poem below and pre-order peluda, her book of poems, here.