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Spanish in U.S. Media and its Role in Authenticating Latinx Identity

Hola toda mi gente. Si sé hablar español,” says actor Miguel Cazarez Mora in an Instagram reel. A compilation of scenes of him saying “and because I can’t kill that hijo de puta” is shown across the screen, finally fading back to Mora’s chuckling face. “Esas no son las únicas palabras en español que me sé.”¹

“Hello everyone. Yes, I can speak Spanish. Those weren’t the only words I know in Spanish.” This is the message Mora tells his fans after the release of his most recent movie, The Black Phone. In it, he plays Robin Arellano, the tough Mexican American friend of Finn who defends him against the bigoted violent bullies of his high school. After becoming a victim to the neighborhood’s local serial killer, his fighting words for Finn were to “kill that son-of-a-bitch for him.”

There is something in Mora’s assurance of his Spanish proficiency to his presumably Latinx audience that elicits curiosity. His character in The Black Phone was a pleasant surprise and an exciting moment for the U.S. Latinx community, as it presents a significant step forward in the movement for representation in film. Even more, his Spanish dialogue in the film—however short it was—provided some sense of pride for Latines in the audience. I know I was happy that a brown character had finally made it to the horror screen and spoken some Spanish words. In film, Latinx characters are usually depicted saying token Spanish phrases and words—“ese, cabron, abuelita”— throughout their dialogue in an attempt to reflect their bilingualism and, most importantly, their lingering mother tongue. Admittedly, Robin falls under that trope, but as a Latine, we grasp for any sliver of representation we can get.² The conscious decision of integrating Spanish in the characters’ dialogue certifies their Latinx identity but that doesn’t automatically translate onto the actor; that is, unless they confirm it like Mora did. In any case, the intertwinement of uttered language and authenticating one’s heritage is an interesting one: while the act is a nice acknowledgment of the centrality of language in representing a pan-ethnic group, it also appears to reinforce the idea that Spanish is intrinsically Latinx.

Cultural identity consists of many things, one of them being language.³ Sharing the fate of other diasporas, Latines born in the United States come to question their affiliation to their parents’ culture and whether Spanish accurately encapsulates their personhood. It is fairly common for first-generation Latines to know and speak Spanish, but subsequent generations increasingly decide to omit the language from their children. A 2015 Pew Research study found that 97% of Latinx immigrant parents spoke Spanish to their children, later dropping to 71% for second-generation Latinx parents, and then to 49% among third-generation and higher. Although 88% of U.S. Latinx expressed the significance of passing on Spanish to their children, it is observable that the sentiment declines with every succeeding generation.⁴ To sociolinguists, this occurrence detailing the host country’s steady dominance over the immigrant native language is called language shift.

Parents only have so much power in combating the phenomenon of language shift. The educational setting, for instance, remains an influential factor in the preservation of the English language and the diminishment of Spanish. As Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa explicated in their critique of appropriateness-based approaches to language diversity in education, current pedagogy revolves around monoglossic language ideologies rooted in “powerful allegiances to imagined linguistic norms persist regardless of whether anyone actually adheres to those norms in practice.”⁵ The resulting practice is, then, the subtractive model solely focused on increasing Standard English competence by expecting mastery over empirical linguistic practices all the while neglecting the students’ native language.⁶ There is a loss in lexical and syntactic knowledge, morphology, and a higher prevalence of mood errors, all indicating the movement from Spanish to English.⁷

As more Latinx youth gradually lose their fluency in Spanish, what does it mean for Latinidad in the context of the U.S.? Spanish is a marker of group identity, a source of ethnic solidarity and pride, so its absence begets criticism from fellow Spanish speakers and those hailed from Latin America. The majority of Latinx believe speaking Spanish should not be a requirement of the identity,⁸ and the backdrop of raciolinguistic ideologies in education provides context for their reasoning. And yet, monolingual Latinx are labeled as “no sabo” kids, a testament of a failed upbringing and, on the more extreme end, the new Yankees upholding English hegemony. Though there may be some truth to it (more than 50% of border patrol agents are Latinx⁹), it is still troubling that all of these amalgamate into the construction of an inauthentic Latinx individual.

Perhaps more empathy can be offered if a beloved pop culture icon was in the spotlight. The Queen of Tejano, Selena Quintanilla, wrote and sang songs entirely in Spanish, but behind the scenes, she struggled to balance English and Spanish just like any other U.S.-born Latinx. Latin–American interviewers never missed an opportunity to ask about her Spanish fluency; in a 1995 January interview, Don Francisco asked her if she had always spoken Spanish well or if she had to learn. She replied: “I’m still learning… One has to practice in order to learn.”¹⁰ In another interview with Cristina Saralegui, Selena mistakenly says “diez y cuatro” for the number fourteen. Cristina jests it’s her Tex-Mex Spanish, to which Selena humorously tells the audience: “But you understand me, right?”¹¹

Though not constantly prodded as Selena was (maybe an indication of a loosening culture surrounding language barriers), singer Omar Apollo has faced similar situations in which his Spanish has been a marker for his connection to Mexican culture. During his interview with Maye, Omar revealed that his Spanish capabilities were not strong as a result of being born in the United States and having been put in its educational system. He improved his writing skills by immersing himself in the media of that language, citing practices like “speaking Spanish more, watching Spanish films, reading Spanish.”¹² He discusses the broken Spanish many first-generation Latinx use to speak with their parents, neither fully defaulting to Spanish or English. When asked about whether he had any future vacation plans by Claro Musica Mexicana, Omar tells him “lo tengo que plan out lo tengo que planear ahorita.”¹³ Unsure about his selection of words, he asks the interviewer if he said “planear” was the correct choice and if it wasn’t Spanglish. Throughout the interview, Omar codeswitched between Spanish and English, but never uttered a Spanglish word.

Selena shines some truth on the function of language. It undoubtedly connects a person to their heritage, but it also facilitates communication between two or more people. As for Omar, he brings up the highly contended topic of Spanglish. This particular Spanish, as spoken in the U.S., exemplifies the fusion of one’s heritage language and the host country’s language as a means of retaining part of their cultural identity while also competently engaging in conversation. It must be underscored that Spanglish, while used as a catchphrase for “incorrect,” “inferior,” or “perverted” Spanish, is actually a highly complex communicative system that should not be dismissed so easily. In fact, the variation requires knowledge of both Spanish and English grammar and phonology in order to modify the structure of a sentence. Among the patterns demonstrated in Spanglish, lexical innovation (using vaso instead of copa to describe a particular glass) and lexical borrowing (“dame un break” and morphed words like troca) are the most common.¹⁴ It is clear that Spanglish is structural like any other language and dialect, and successful communication through Spanglish does happen, but its enduring stigma reveals the underlying ideological problem of still needing to conform to monolingual norms, whether that be “pure” Spanish or “pure” English.

So-called inferior language practices like Spanglish are looked down upon by Latin Americans and the sentiment is internalized by Latinx abroad, but that is not the case for a certain group of people. As reported by Jane H. Hills, language mixing performed by white monolingual English speakers is not berated and scrutinized like Latinx are; “Mock Spanish” phrases like no problemo and hasta la vista baby (remember Terminator?) are actually given passes all the time even though they are just as disorderly. And oftentimes, Mock Spanish spoken by that white demographic reproduces negative stereotypes of Latinx because of its covert racist indexicality.¹⁵ In other words, this type of Spanglish is used in a negative context and subtly mocks the native speakers since LatinAmerican Spanish is seen as a “lesser” language. For a clearer example, Donald Trump used Mock Spanish in his many of his speeches for added derision against Latinx immigrants.¹⁶ And to no one’s surprise, no one batted an eye.

The pressure for Latinx to flawlessly speak “correct” Spanish as a way to prove their ethnoracial authenticity has evidently translated onto the various media we consume, but it’s ultimately up to us to spread more compassion around this issue. Let’s drop the pejoratives and aim for community.

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