My first spoken words were in Spanish, “Mami, yo quiero … ” Thirty years later, my son would string together his first sentence in Spanglish: “Mas crackers, please.”
Does that make my son less Hispanic? American society seems to think so.
Examine how advertisers spend their dollars, how films portray Latinos, how companies choose to hire. Language is perceived as the overriding characteristic that makes one Latino.
Cultural identity is complex, particularly in the country’s current state of race relations, and our simplistic views need to evolve if we’re ever to make meaningful progress in understanding one another. Language does not define me or others of my generation, the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
Whether or not Spanish makes for a cultural connection depends on the context: A non-Latino who speaks to me in Spanish may signal camaraderie, much as a person who codes connects with other coders. But we wouldn’t necessarily share the smells of my mother’s fricase de pollo or the wrath of my father’s chancleta or the Spanish songs my grandfather sang to me as a child.
My two children are part Cuban, part Mexican — and 100 percent American. While I’m bilingual, my husband, like many Mexican-Americans of his generation, is not.
The youngest of seven children whose birth years span the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, my husband understands why his parents made a conscious decision that English serve as their children’s sole language. The Los Angeles-born couple, who counted labor leader Cesar Chavez as a friend, knew firsthand the societal penalties for having accents and brown skin in an era that pre-dated the civil rights movement.
My parents fled the island of Cuba and dictator Fidel Castro’s regime in 1962, along with many other refugees who sought asylum in the United States. They eventually settled in Miami, which over decades transformed itself into a cultural bubble where Spanish is as common — if not more so, in some parts — as English.
The differences in our parents’ stories, experience and politics are stark, yet, culturally, I have far more in common with my husband than I do with a person who simply speaks Spanish.
My children are part of a generation whose parents are acculturated Hispanics who prefer English.
The use of Spanish at home is declining among Latinos in major U.S. cities, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Over an almost 10-year period, Spanish use at home among Latinos declined in each of the top 25 U.S. metro areas with the largest populations of Latinos.
It’s a phenomenon attributed to choice, not circumstance.
I can read Spanish, but I choose not to. I could watch telenovelas, but I don’t. And I could have insisted that my children speak Spanish to me ? — ?even as they speak English to their father, cousins, grandparents and friends. But I didn’t.
That’s not to say my husband and I don’t see the value of learning Spanish. I’ve often told my children that one day I will find a Saturday Spanish school to pick up where I did not. (Side note: Why aren’t there Saturday Spanish schools, much as there are Mandarin, Hebrew, Korean, etc. schools?)
In my professional life, being bilingual also has played to my advantage. On more than one occasion, I’ve been challenged on my Spanish skills during an interview only to realize the person quizzing me clearly was not fluent and out-matched.
I’ve sat inside the office of senior leadership at a top media company and listened as one executive complained about the lack of experienced Latino job candidates. Most, he said, were recent college graduates who were “too green.”
“And they don’t even speak Spanish, so they’re only Latinos by name,” he punctuated his point to a room of nodding heads. Then I spoke up; the heads stopped nodding.
Almost two decades into the 21st century, and we’re still struggling with institutional blinders when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Real progress acknowledges the important distinction between culture and language: The latter could be a subset of the former, but its absence does not dilute one’s identity.
Yet that executive’s viewpoint is one that continues to permeate business, media and film.
Seeing yourself reflected on TV and the big screen should not feel novel in 2017.
I don’t take inventory, but I feel it when it’s there. The opening scene of “Devil’s Whisper,” an independent supernatural horror film featured at a Los Angeles film festival in June, was spoken in English and sprinkles of Spanish. The movie wasn’t about a Latino family. The family at the center of the story just happened to be Latinos who predominantly spoke English at home.
It was unusual enough for me to take note, and it speaks volumes that I can’t think of another similar example.
Other sectors are similarly behind. Dollars spent on media advertising targeting Hispanics has reached $7.8 billion, according to Advertising Age. But in a sign that corporate America has yet to catch up to the cultural evolution of Latinos, those numbers largely reflect Spanish-language spend.
Most Fortune 500 companies still believe that to reach a Hispanic audience, one must appeal to them in Spanish. English-dominant Latinos inevitably fall into the “general market” bucket, leaving a open field of opportunity for those who come understand and appreciate cultural identity.
For my son, now 13 years old, that complexity and nuance are realities he navigates with regularity: When he debates someone who believes Fidel Castro is a hero. When he hears his father’s stories of being mistaken for a gardener, a valet and a car thief. And when someone assumes he speaks Spanish simply because his last name is Vasquez.
Anne Vasquez is the Chief Digital Officer at tronc, Inc., the parent company of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and a longtime journalist, previously the managing editor of the Sun Sentinel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow her on Medium @annevasquez or on Twitter @NewsEditorAnne.