By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
(CNN) — What do Sen. Ted Cruz, Oscar-winning actor Ariana DeBose and a puzzled kid stumbling to answer questions on live TV have in common?
They’re all Latinos who’ve been shamed for the way they speak Spanish.
The issue regularly emerges in debates online – and even on stage during presidential primary season. And a new study from the Pew Research Center reveals how widespread it’s become.
About half of US Latinos who don’t speak Spanish have been shamed because of it, the study says, noting that 54% of Latinos who speak no more than a little Spanish say another Latino has made them feel bad for it.
The experience is more common for younger Latinos. Among those aged 18-49 who said they could carry on a conversation in Spanish “a little” or “not at all,” 57% report being shamed by other Latinos for not speaking Spanish well, the study says, while only 44% of those aged 50 and older had that experience.
At the same time, the study found that more than three quarters of Latinos say it’s not necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino.
“It’s this interesting set of tensions around what the role of Spanish is in Latinos’ lives,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew.
Why do these tensions keep flaring?
“There’s a subtle but ongoing shift in the share of Latinos who speak Spanish at home,” Lopez says. “While the vast majority, according to the Census Bureau, do. … among younger Latinos, you see a growing share speaking only English.”
In this climate, high-profile moments on TV and online reignite debates over whether someone is “Latino enough,” Pew’s study notes, and language often plays a major role in the conversation.
The study cites several examples:
• As Sen. Marco Rubio and Cruz sparred during a 2016 debate, Rubio slammed his Republican presidential primary rival’s language skills. “I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision, because he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz fired back – in Spanish – and the debate continued.
• Last year DeBose opened up about her insecurities around speaking Spanish, telling Lin-Manuel Miranda that she hesitated at first to play the role in 2021’s “West Side Story” that would eventually land her an Oscar. “I do not speak Spanish. I’m not fluent. And I thought for the longest time that that made me less of what I was,” DeBose said in a Vanity Fair video. “And maybe I shouldn’t talk about my background because perhaps I didn’t represent the community well enough.”
• More recently, debate surged online when a reporter tried to interview a child outside SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, after Mexico’s CONCACAF Gold Cup win there. Video clips went viral of the visibly confused kid struggling to answer a rapid string of Spanish questions, prompting critics to slam the child’s parents and his generation’s attitudes toward learning the language.
They’re helping Latinos learn Spanish ‘without shame’
When she saw the video circulating online, Jackie Rodriguez says she saw herself in that little boy’s face.
She had also attended that soccer game, and she loved the outpouring of joy and sense of community she found there. But if anyone had grilled her in Spanish about the details of what happened on the field, she says she wouldn’t have known what to say.
“I could tell you who my favorite player is, and who looks good, and who won, but I can’t talk about the technicalities,” she says.
Being shamed for your understanding of Spanish, like that child was on air and online, can have a lasting impact, Rodriguez says.
“When you sit with that, that’s when those mental blocks start to build up. And next time you want to speak Spanish in public, you’re going to think of that moment,” she says.
For years, Rodriguez has been helping others face their insecurities about speaking Spanish.
She’s a co-founder of Spanish Sin Pena, which bills itself as a “safe space” for Latinos to “heal, practice and have fun learning Spanish with others that share similar stories.” In Spanish, “sin pena” means “without shame.” Spanish Sin Pena holds online language classes and discussion groups and even offers in-person travel experiences for participants.
The program started out about five years ago in the form of coaching sessions for a few individuals. Since then, it’s blossomed into a supportive community of more than 1,000 people, says Wendy Ramirez, another cofounder.
“We have grandparents in our program. We have people that are pregnant about to have babies that join our program because of that. We have people that just are still in school. We have professionals,” Rodriguez says. “It’s just really cool to see all these different walks of life.”
Many bond over the common experience of being children or grandchildren of immigrants, and wishing they spoke Spanish better in order to connect with their families.
According to Pew’s study released this week, most US Latinos speak Spanish, but the share of Latinos who do differs by generation. Nearly 70% of Latino, U.S.-born children of immigrants say they can carry on a conversation in Spanish at least pretty well. But among later generations descended from Latino immigrants, a much smaller share (34%) say they can do that.
‘We need to stop apologizing’
The Pew report doesn’t delve into the impact shaming over Spanish has in the lives of people who face it.
But Dr. José Medina says it’s a reality he knows all too well. In his years as a teacher, a principal and now as an educational consultant, Medina says he’s heard from many people who are struggling.
“Some feel guilty for not speaking Spanish or for making the decision to not have their children learn Spanish,” he says.
Others face ridicule when they try to use Spanish or Spanglish in conversation.
Last week Medina, whose videos about Spanglish and dual language education have a large social media following, took to TikTok with a response to the stories he’s heard. A major reason many struggle to speak Spanish, he said, is because of the education they got in U.S. school systems.
“We need to stop apologizing for the Spanish we speak or don’t speak,” he said.
His message sparked hundreds of responses. Among them:
“My Spanish was taken away, beginning in kindergarten. We were made to feel ashamed of our language.”
“Hate going to Mexico and all my family saying I speak like a gringa and shaming me as if it’s my fault I don’t speak it very well.”
“I was bullied even in my own family for the ‘wrong’ Spanish I spoke.”
Responding to shame with a game
Carlos Torres says growing up in California, he rarely spoke Spanish with his mom, who’d immigrated to the US from Mexico.
“My mom and the rest of my family, my grandparents, were always trying to tell me, ‘You’ve got to learn English. You’ve got to fit in. You’ve got to go to a better school.’”
Now 31, he says as an adult he frequently found himself asking questions of his wife, who’s more fluent in Spanish. They realized the questions – and the often-entertaining conversations they sparked – were something others in their generation deal with daily, too.
So together they created “Yo Sabo The Game,” which features cards that quiz players on Spanish words and encourage them to share childhood memories along the way.
Laughter-filled videos of Torres and his wife, Jessica Rosales, quizzing people with the cards have earned the game millions of likes on TikTok.
The game’s title is a play on words, referring to a slur that’s frequently used to describe the way some US-born children of immigrants speak Spanish. That term, “no sabo kids,” mocks an incorrect conjugation of the Spanish verb saber, which means “to know.”
“It’s a term that has been used to kind of tease people about their Spanish or single them out and try to make someone feel that they’re not Latino enough,” Torres says.
Torres and Rosales say they hope their game will turn that idea on its head and bridge the language gap between families and friends.
Pew’s study found that for many, speaking Spanish is closely connected with Latino identity.
But Torres says their game is revealing a more complicated picture, too.
“It doesn’t matter how much Spanish I know or how much Spanish Jess knows. We share very, very similar childhood memories, very similar Latino household memories,” he says.
And that, Torres says, should bring people together “rather than us putting each other down based on the amount of Spanish we know.”
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