Cepeda column: You don’t have to speak Spanish to be Latino | PostIndependent.com

Cepeda column: You don’t have to speak Spanish to be Latino

Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO — Way to guilt-trip me about my parenting choices, Pew Research Center!

According to their newest report on language acquisition, 85 percent of Latino parents say they speak Spanish to their children, but only 71 percent of U.S.-born Latino parents with at least one immigrant parent of their own do so.

It’s small comfort to know that I’m not alone in dropping the ball by not ensuring that my children learned to speak my native language. And it gets worse: The likelihood of my grandchildren speaking Spanish is bleak.

I’m not merely pessimistic. The share of Latinos speaking to their children in Spanish falls to just 49 percent among third- or higher-generation Latino parents (those born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents).

My situation, however, fell into this category: Just 55 percent of Latino parents with a non-Latino partner say they speak Spanish to their children.

I bet most of those families, like us, swore they’d raise their kids bilingually.

But let’s face it: The normal stresses of infancy, toddlerhood and the early elementary school years are tough enough without layering on the immensely difficult task of having one parent speak in a language that the other parent maybe doesn’t even understand.

On this, I can’t speak from experience. My husband, a non-Spanish-speaker, and I never got that far.

I nearly died giving birth to an underweight, premature son who had severe developmental delays. As time passed and he wasn’t speaking, the doctors and speech pathologists posited that perhaps our 19-month-old was tongue-tied and needed a frenulectomy.

Yes, American medical professionals suggested surgery to cut the tissue that connected my baby’s tongue to the floor of his mouth.

Incidentally, this was not completely unheard of. My husband and I had read about it in “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts,” by the Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kingston.

“[M]y mother cut my tongue. She pushed my tongue up and sliced the frenum. Or maybe she snipped it with a pair of nail scissors. I don’t remember her doing it, only her telling me about it,” Hong Kingston wrote. She explained that her mom, “’cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language.’”

We certainly wanted the same for our son, but took a hard pass on cutting his frenulum.

Instead, his first language was American Sign Language, which my husband and I happily learned so we could speak and sign simple words like “girl,” “boy,” “thank you,” “more,” “shoes,” and the super-fun pulling motion of “milk.”

The experts told us not to throw a third language into the mix, and, thankfully, our kid eventually spoke as naturally and fluently as any other. We were so relieved that it seemed ungrateful for us to rue the fact that he didn’t speak Spanish, too.

By the time his brother came along, the good intentions had gone out the window and our whole household, including grandparents, spoke only English. Eventually, the enthusiastic but failed attempts to grind some Spanish into the kids fell by the wayside in the din of busy family life.


It still makes me sad not to have passed on the Spanish language. Sometimes it feels like, aside from my hair and eye color, my boys have nothing of me; not my surname, not my language.

But that’s how the melting pot works — and I can always hope they marry a passionate Spanish speaker who inspires them to learn Spanish for their kids.

In the meantime, take it from me: My children are no less a part of the United States’ cultural heritage of Latin American immigrants just because they don’t speak Spanish.

So if you meet someone who identifies as Hispanic — or Latino, Latinx, Mexican-American or whatever — but they admit they don’t speak Spanish, don’t give them a hard time about it.

Look, German is the eighth-most popular language other than English spoken at home in the United States (933,000 people speak it, and about 85 percent of them are bilingual, according to the Migration Policy Institute). But you wouldn’t go around looking down on every Bohm, Schneider and Franke for not speaking German, would you?

If you are Hispanic and grew up getting razzed about not speaking Spanish, ignore the haters — you’re no less Hispanic for it, and you can always learn the language.

But if you really think you can’t learn it or don’t want to — don’t sweat it, we’ll love you anyway.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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