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Are Latinos Who Can’t Speak Spanish Not “Latino Enough?”

Published November 19, 2021 in Learning Spanish & Portuguese - 3 Comments

Back in college, I remember taking some Spanish class with a professor from Spain during my sophomore year.

One day, everyone in the class was put into some group and we had to do some group assignment focused on Spanish grammar.

There happened to be one guy in my group – some Latino guy with Guatemalan parents – who was having trouble with the subjunctive.

Which, to be fair, plenty of people find that aspect of Spanish grammar to be difficult.

Though that wasn’t the only thing that he got confused on when it came to Spanish.

Looking back on it, I’d say the dude knew Spanish “informally” if that makes sense?

Like he knew how to communicate in Spanish but would make grammatical mistakes and didn’t have the biggest vocabulary.

In all likelihood, if I had to guess, he learned Spanish informally beforehand by listening to his parents speak it.

Similar to the white guy working at a Mexican restaurant and learning Spanish informally by exchanging words with the kitchen staff.

So his Spanish definitely wasn’t perfect but it worked.

But yet the guy was Latino.

Shouldn’t he speak Spanish perfectly?

Why didn’t his parents teach him Spanish better?

Is he even a real Latino or a fake Latino?

Granted, he wasn’t the only Latino I can think of who wasn’t perfect at Spanish.

Years before that, I was in high school and there were a few Latinos in my graduating class.

Actually, now that I think about it, I think most of the Latinos in my high school class didn’t speak Spanish very well or at all.

It’s been almost a decade since high school so my memory is weak.

Sometimes there’s people I remember that I forgot before.

And obviously I didn’t go around probing anyone’s Spanish back then.

But, among the few Latinos we had in high school, most didn’t speak Spanish from what I remember.

We had some Latina chick named Olivia or something like that who didn’t speak Spanish.

There was some skinny ass kid who was learning Spanish in the same class as me but his level of Spanish was the same as mine back then (almost non-existent).

And outside of Spanish speaking Latinos….

There was one guy named Josh that I knew a little bit who was born in Brazil but basically raised all his life in small town Iowa.

Did he speak Portuguese?

Not at all.

Granted, it is small town Iowa and the pressure to teach your kids Spanish or Portuguese is probably less strong in that environment.

It obviously depends on the parents, right?

On the flip side, I also knew a Mexican chick named Maria who was from Mexico and raised her kids in Iowa.

Though I’m obviously not aware to her parenting habits, I did hear about how she went to the high school Spanish teacher and got pissed about some word they taught her kid.

I think it was “piscina” or something like that when she wanted her kid to learn the Mexican version, alberca.

So, if I had to guess, her kids probably know Spanish.


Perhaps with a gringo accent – I have no idea.

Either way, after high school, as you can tell by the example of the dude with Guatemalan parents, I met other Latinos from time to time in the Midwest.

Some who spoke Spanish and others who didn’t.

And it’s a question that I didn’t ever give much thought to until recently because I’m not Latino and so the judgement against my Spanish abilities is less strong.

But that question being “are Latinos who don’t speak Spanish real Latinos?

Like I said, I have no stake in the matter since I’m not Latino.

But I figured I might as well touch the subject since it does seem to come up once in a blue moon.

And, if I ever have kids with someone from Latin America, then it very well might be a question more relevant to my life.

Anyway, I don’t know the arguments people make necessarily when it comes to this topic.

So I’m simply going to evaluate opinions on the topic online and give my thoughts on the matter before wrapping this up.

Let’s begin.

Why Don’t They Speak Spanish?

Before we begin, we should at least try to understand why some never learned Spanish (or Portuguese).

As I said, I don’t have any personal experience with this, so I’m just reiterating the experiences I can find online to give some light on this topic.

From my understanding, it seems like it boils down to 3 issues.

For one, there was either a lack of concern on the parent’s to teach Spanish or they found it to be too difficult to do so.

The parents maybe didn’t feel as much pressure to teach Spanish in small town Iowa.

Or, in trying to teach it, they found it to be challenging if the kid either didn’t care to learn or actively resisted speaking Spanish.

The other factor that comes to mind is this idea that some Latinos chose not to teach Spanish because they wanted their kids to be like everyone else and didn’t want them to face as much discrimination.

Or that the school systems discouraged speaking Spanish in the classroom.

That last point can be seen in this article here.

“Despite the research and supportive educators, such as Quetone, the dark legacy of linguistic discrimination lingers in many neighborhoods and classrooms today.

In February of this year, a Boston mother and daughter were attacked for speaking Spanish while walking home from dinner. In November 2019, a substitute teacher at a Texas high school was caught on camera telling a Spanish-speaking student to speak English.”

Finally, another thing that crosses my mind is the possibility that said Latino did learn Spanish growing up but simply doesn’t speak it perfectly because he didn’t learn at too young of an age (like 4 or 5) and speaks it with some grammatical inaccuracies and a US accent.

Or that said Latino translates some phrases in English into Spanish that might work for some US Latinos but Latinos born and raised in Latin America might find difficult to understand.

As we’ll see later, even if said Latino speaks Spanish but imperfectly, they still might get heat for it.

Anyway, those are the main reasons that I came across online as to why some Latinos might not speak Spanish.

Of course, there might be other contributions to this development but I didn’t see any online.

If you have anything to add, drop a comment below.

But let’s move on.

What Do Hispanics Think on This Issue?

In reading about this topic, it’s my impression only that a lot of the judgement regarding Latinos who don’t speak Spanish is coming from other Latinos.

Obviously, the non-Latino dude who yells “THIS IS AMERICA! SPEAK ENGLISH!” isn’t going to be too judgemental if some Latino can’t speak Spanish.

Or at least I would think not.

Wouldn’t he be dancing in the streets happy that more Latinos can’t speak Spanish?

And with that, you have articles like this one here shared by a reader named Dazza about some Latina woman in NYC who recalls the judgement she gets from other Latinos for her Spanish skills.

Beyond personal examples like that, you also have examples on the political stage of Latino politicians basically calling out the Spanish abilities of other politicians as you can see here.

Cruz vs Rubio and Cruz vs O'Rourke videos

But are all Latinos really this judgemental?

Well, we have Pew Research to help us shed some light on this as you can see here.

The article asks the question “is speaking Spanish necessary to be Hispanic?”

It poses that question to numerous Latinos in the US as to what their opinion is on the matter.

The results?

Among all Latinos they polled, 71% said no and 28% said yes.

Where’d that last 1% go?

But then they broke the polling down by different groups of Latinos.

Among foreign born Latinos, 58% said no and 41% said yes.

Among US born Latinos, 87% said no and 11% said no.

Among registered voters, 81% said no and 19% said yes.

Of course, we see the difference in opinion between US born Latinos and foreign born Latinos.

While a majority in both camps say it is not necessary, you still have 29% gap between the two.

If I had to guess, the US born Latino crowd probably has more Latinos who don’t speak Spanish and would obviously be more likely to not think that speaking Spanish is necessary to be Latino.

Either way, I think this is one of the more important factors to consider.

It really should be left to Latinos to decide on this topic since the question has to do with their community and that of nobody else.

Anyway, what else is there to say?

Other Aspects of Latino Culture

Another argument that I am seeing being made, and it’s one that makes logical sense to me, is that there’s more to being Latino than speaking Spanish.

For example, you have this article here titled “Being Latino is more than just Speaking Perfect Spanish.”

“But constructing a larger sense of Latino identity is about finding ways to connect with one's heritage, whether it's through Spanish or not.

It's about the richness of the Latino culture and the diversity across the Latin diaspora.”

Going back to that article shared by Dazza, you have this interesting quote here.

“We cannot cook like our mothers (or fathers). One Christmas, I was talking to my coworker about making Christmas dinner. I told her I was making a pernil and arroz con gandules. “You know how to make that?” she asked. I know why she asked. People are always surprised that I can make a pretty impressive pot of arroz con ganudules simply because I do not speak Spanish. Not really sure why, recipes are written in English.”

Though the author was talking more about misconceptions and not necessarily how she engages in Latin culture in other ways than speaking Spanish, it’s still a good example of how Latinos can and do engage in the culture of their parents while not speaking Spanish.

Outside of cooking, said Latino can engage in numerous ways.

Be it listening to music that they might’ve heard growing up in their parent’s home, reading Hispanic literature (maybe with an English translation), visiting relatives they have in the country of their parents (or just visiting in general), attending local Latino cultural events in their city, etc.

And it’s not just cultural aspects to consider either.

Being Treated as a Latino

So you’re a Latino and don’t speak Spanish.

You might have insecurities about that and maybe some other Latino doubted you as a real Latino.

Then, after walking away from that uncomfortable scenario, you find yourself being confronted with discrimination because a non-Latino perceives you to be a Latino.

Maybe telling you to “go back to your country” even though you were born there.

So which is it?

Whose right?

Is the judgemental Latino who doubted your Latino identify right in saying you aren’t a Latino?

Or the racist dude right in thinking you are Latino (obviously the statement “go back to your country” wouldn’t be right)?

This is a pretty solid way of looking at it in my opinion.

If a vast majority of people in society see you and treat you as a Latino, then that is very much part of your life experience.

Let’s go back to that article cited before titled “being Latino is more than just speaking perfect Spanish” that you can find here.

In it, they cite a Pew Research poll finding that 38% of Latinos experienced some form of discrimination and 30% “heard expressions of support” in the 12 months before Covid started.

Now, for those in the 38%, it’s not hard to imagine, given these are US Latinos they polled, that many of them either don’t speak Spanish at all or they speak imperfect Spanish.

Does that mean they aren’t Latino enough even though they are literally facing discrimination for being seen as Latino?

“And although panethnic words like "Latino" and "Hispanic" are largely used to describe one's identity, different Latino subgroups have their own personal experiences of what it is to be Latino, as they relate to culture, race, beliefs, gender, and even socio-political status, not just language.”

Latino Experiences

Before we wrap this article up, we should at least recognize the experiences of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish by putting the words on paper.

Since I’m not Latino, I can’t do that from personal experience outside of the few Latinos I met who happened to not speak Spanish.

So we’ll cite a few sources to give some insight into this topic from those who supposedly have this experience.

First, we have these videos here for those to enjoy.

And, for those curious, here's a video on "what happens to Latinos in prison that don't speak Spanish."

I would've played it here but the ability to host it on my website has been disabled from Youtube's end.


Second, as I said, we had that realty nice article about the Latina woman in NYC who doesn’t speak Spanish.

You can check her article out here. I’ve already cited a quote from it to and she gives her own experiences with this topic.

But let’s get to some comments by some self-identifying Latinos in that article.

“Not going to give my whole life story, but I was basically raised in white neighborhoods around white people while my cousins were raised around latino based communities. My parents tried to teach me spanish as a child, but I just didn’t want to speak it because my peers were all white. I tried to learn in high school and my parents speak spanish to each other at home, but I can only understand not speak. And yes, I have trouble understanding different dialects. I just wish other people would understand how I feel when they question why I don’t speak spanish or even question my latino background based on my looks and the languages I can or cannot speak. Like I’m some kind of freak. Like I’m fake and don’t belong in any community.”

Then we have this comment here.

“I relate 100%… I’m half Peruvian and half white. My mom speaks fluent Spanish. Growing up, my parents decided to move to a different town 10 minutes away from where we were prior. Our new home was in a predominately white town, I definitely did not fit in in school.

I felt like an outcast because I was one of the only Hispanics in my class. I did not grow up speaking Spanish, my mom always told me that I didn’t wanna learn when I was a kid, but to this day it honestly bothers me because I feel like a disgrace to my family and Hispanics anywhere. Whenever I am with my family, i can understand mostly what they are talking about.

If I hear a few words, I jump to conclusion about what they must be talking about. I can understand more than speak. I get embarrassed if I try to even speak because I know I’ll mess up some words. I’ve been to Perú and Mexico… it’s tough to feel confident in places where you sort of feel like you belong even though you don’t speak the language.”

And while I haven’t noticed any non-Latinos being judgmental about this topic, maybe some have? Here’s an interesting comment from that article.

“What really bothers me is I noticed that hispanic/Latinos who don’t speak Spanish seemed to always e singled out than almost any other group in the USA, probably Also Asian Americans who are not bilingual also. For example, I think its very hypocritical for someone who identifies as French American, Irish American, German American, African American, etc., to be critical of me when they hey admit that they don’t speak the language of their ethnic heritage. Its like you are calling me out when you can’t even speak the language of your ethnicity. Isn’t that a double standard? Its funny how that works.”

Outside of that article, can we find any interesting comments elsewhere to shed more light on personal experiences related to this?

Well, we have some of the comments in this article here.

“Forget, for a moment, it’s Castro in the article. I’m in my 50’s and grew up understanding being Mexican was not a good thing. Being Mexican and speaking Spanish was a double bad thing. These two things signified I was dumb and “less than” the white kids. We didn’t speak Spanish. Understand it yes. Speak it no. Then we grew up and the world is changing. It’s not like it was and learning the language and being proud of the Mexican heritage isn’t shameful. That is where the gap in the language comes from. As with most things, it can be overcome.”

Then we have this comment here.

“In my home we all spoke English, my parents only spoke Spanish when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about. My parents, Grandparents and Great Grandparents all spoke fluent Spanish. Sadly we could've learned as children but were never taught. Now as an adult i have a hard time just remembering vocabulary.

I forget the words :(“

Final Verdict: Are Latinos Who Don't Speak Spanish "Latino Enough?"

Well, it’s not really my place to say because I’m not Latino and my Spanish isn’t perfect anyhow.

But, if you were to put a gun to my head to force an answer out of me, I’d say sure.

Of course, similar to this article here, I do think it’s a sign that the bloodline of the Latino is becoming “less Latino.”

What do I mean?

Well, as we clarified before, speaking Spanish is part of Latino culture but it isn’t the only thing.

The Latino with no Spanish skills still might be seen as a Latino locally and might even engage in Latino culture in other ways.

But said Latino still objectively never had a part of Latino culture by not speaking Spanish.

Does this trend of losing aspects of Latino culture continue in the subsequent generations?

Maybe reaching a point where some descendant in the future doesn’t even identify as Latino and doesn’t even practice Latino culture in the ways that the non-Spanish speaking Latino ancestor did?

As I wrote here, about 50% of Latinos by the fourth generation don’t even identify as Latino.

What do they identify as?

I have no idea.

Here's one guy describing his identity.

Though his reasons seem to be very different but, if he was raised in Latin America, would he feel the same way as not being Latino or Hispanic? Who knows.

So, when answering this question, I do think this needs to be part of the calculation.

While said non-Spanish speaking Latino is as Latino as anyone else, I do see the lack of Spanish as a sign that only potentially their descendents will lose the Latino identity down the road.

And I emphasize potentially – it’s not set in stone.

Said descendants could be marrying other Latinos and keeping the culture alive.

Some later generation Latinos identify as Latino and others don’t.

It’s a personal matter.

Anyway, let’s not beat that topic to death again but there’s a great conversation that was had on the topic in this article here in the last week.

Outside of that, another thing to say is that obviously some people are just judgmental assholes.

Those who judge you for it are dicks. Nothing more.

Finally, all this talk has focused on Spanish-speaking Latinos in the US.

I have wondered, like with Josh for example mentioned way back, if there are any Brazilian descended Latinos who don’t speak Portuguese and get shit for it?

Or at least feel bad about it?

I tried to find something online that touches that topic but couldn’t find anything.

Obviously, we have less Brazilian immigrants raising families in the US than all of the folks of Spanish speaking ancestors combined.

Would be interesting to look into this topic from that angle.

Anyway, that’s all I got to say.

If you have anything to add, leave a comment below in the comment section.

Other insights would be appreciated to gain more perspective on this topic since, as I said, I’m not Latino anyway.

And follow my Twitter here.

Thanks for reading.

Best regards,



Dazza - November 20, 2021 Reply

Colin Post over at ‘Expat Chronicles’ wrote a great post about the difficulties in actually teaching/keeping up his kids Spanish ability now they are back in The States. A lot of it (as it is with learning languages…) is motivation though the motivations change from being a child to being an adult – it’s going to be a lot harder for a Latino kid in Iowa than it would be in Miami not only to be able to speak Spanish but to connect the dots of relevancy to them. I actually made a couple of posts about this subject and stated that it is easier now to learn the language than it ever has been, especially with the advent of the internet and the amount of language learning apps, foreign language written media, TV and radio etc but the motivation still has to be there for it to work.

You stated the times when native Spanish speakers ‘switch’ when you speak Spanish to them and of that arsey Argentine woman screaming at you over the table – my Spanish isn’t great but I have had arsey comments (usually off women…) one was Latina and one was actually American and white – I have had people make ‘what, you don’t speak Spanish etc?’ comments but like I posted under Colin’s post – there were good reasons why and now I am an adult – I have the onus and the learning behaviours, motivation and discipline to persevere with it – it (My Spanish abilities) will never be great though – some people in my position might not bother – I think it is a lot easier if you can look around and see that the language is relevant to your day-to-day life, I don’t know if it is in St Louis.

    Matt - November 20, 2021 Reply

    Good points. What posts have you made on the subject? I’d read them.

      Dazza - November 20, 2021 Reply

      They’re in the comments section in the link posted, a few folks posted in the comments section about the difficulties of bringing up bilingual kids or the teaching of them. Food for thought because I think a lot of people just think if you speak to a kid young enough in whatever language they will just pick it up and speak it when there are a lot more factors to this being a success.

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