Latino but not fluent in Spanish? The litmus test still plagues many

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Academy Award nominee and Afro Latina actor Ariana DeBose recently told Lin-Manuel Miranda in a video interview that she didn’t feel she could represent Latinas in “West Side Story” well enough because she wasn’t a fluent Spanish speaker — she even turned down auditioning for it four times.

“I have the skill set, but maybe my background isn’t good enough,” she said.

Many Latinos who are born or raised in the U.S. can relate. Not feeling “Latino enough” if they don’t pass some sort of language test is an issue that has plagued many.

“I feel anxious talking with other people in Spanish because I don’t want to get judged for my pronunciation,” Marcia Moran, 23, a junior at California State University, Los Angeles, told NBC News. Moran said she has trouble rolling the letter R as is done in Spanish.

“I identify as a Latina, but yet, I’m getting picked on and teased because I can’t speak the language correctly,” she said. “I get nervous talking to other people in Spanish because I worry that they’re going to come for me, saying like, ‘Oh, she’s whitewashed. She’s like — she’s talking American Spanish.’ … It’s kind of like, just having to figure out my identity, between both being here as an American but also as a Latina.”

Some say it’s time to take the pressure off and redefine what it means to be Latino — without the language test.

“If I stopped celebrating certain traditions and I stopped eating the food that is part of my culture, do I stop being Latina?” Melissa Maldonado, 21, a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said. “Language shouldn’t be something that dictates whether one identifies as Latino. I feel it has to do more with your cultural and ancestral background.”

From left, Kaitlyn Santos, 20, Ashley Rojas-Jimenez, 20, Melissa Maldonado, 21 and Kimberly Mena, 20.Courtesy Melissa Maldonado

It’s tough, though, Moran said.

Navigating between American and Latino identities has made her feel like she’s been at a crossroads most of her life, she said, and it’s taken a toll on her self-confidence; it’s also made her insecure about her Spanish-speaking abilities.  

Luis Fernando Macías, an assistant professor of Chicano and Latin American studies at California State University, Fresno, pointed out that there’s no concrete measure of bilingualism or fluency when it comes to being Latino.

“There’s absolutely no reason why we should look down upon or think less of somebody that identifies as Latina, Latino or Latinx but does not have fluency in Spanish,” Macías said. “Spanish fluency looks different for different people. And there’s many different levels of fluency. So it’s not to say that people don’t feel bilingual; they might have very strong tendencies of bilingualism.”

Macías’ comments are especially relevant considering current demographics. “In 2019, 72% of Latinos ages 5 and older spoke English proficiently, up from 59% in 2000,” Pew Research reported. The majority of Latinos — about 70 percent — are U.S. born. In the last decade, immigration has gone down significantly and over 90 percent of Latino children were born in the U.S.

Macías said it’s counterproductive to use Spanish as a marker for Latinidad — a term referring to shared traits among Americans of Latino heritage. Most Hispanics agree — a 2015 Pew survey found that 71 percent said it wasn’t necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino.

Yet the reality is many Hispanics feel judged if they don’t speak fluent Spanish.

‘Recognizing complex histories’

Like other groups throughout the country’s history, generations of Hispanic families have made the transition to English as they integrated into U.S. society — and to avoid discrimination.

An example is the many Mexican American families who experienced a history of being segregated in schools because they spoke Spanish at home, Macías said.

“Families were forced to make a decision: Do I want to approach integrating into society, or do I want to continue speaking Spanish?” Macías said. “Many families ended up not teaching their children Spanish. Many families ended up speaking predominantly English.”

Despite the country’s growing diversity, Spanish speakers can still face discrimination.

Macías said a recognition of families’ complex histories — in addition to an appreciation for art, food and other things “that make us proud Latinos” — is the connection to Latinidad. “That’s exactly what we should be focusing on, not dividing,” he said.

Laura Flores, 27, who works at the Latino Community Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, was born in Mexico and moved with her family to the U.S. She said she identifies as both American and Mexican and speaks both English and Spanish fluently.

Laura Flores and her mother, Olivia Flores Gomez.
Laura Flores and her mother, Olivia Flores Gomez.Courtesy Laura Flores

Code-switching, the practice of alternating between two languages or cultures during a conversation, may be a familiar thing for many Americans.

But Flores said she finds there are moments when she’s expected to know something about Latinos just because of her heritage, even though she explains that everyone’s story is unique.

“I can feel as Latina and as American,” Flores said, “but there’ll be instances where someone will tell me otherwise. So you’ve just got to be comfortable in yourself, and just love yourself and just know where you come from.”

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