Vanessa Gonzalez grew up surrounded by Tejano music and telenovelas in her small town in Texas. Yet as a third-generation Mexican American, Gonzalez hardly ever spoke the language.
She heard her grandparents talk to her uncles in Spanish, and couldn’t understand many of the words. She felt left out, ashamed, unable to connect with her grandmother in the language of her heritage. As she grew older, she started asking her parents why. Why didn’t they teach her Spanish? Why was she having such a hard time picking it up?
“That’s when the stories started coming,” Gonzalez, a 41-year-old mother in Washington, D.C., recalled.
She learned that when her grandparents were young, there was a separate public school for Mexican kids, simply called the Mexican School. The students were all required to speak English and would be punished otherwise. Even Gonzalez’s mother could have been kicked out of school for speaking Spanish as a child, she told her.
“Why would we do that to you?” her mother said.
Gonzalez’s upbringing was echoed in recent weeks in the story of another member of her generation of American Latinos — Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary.
In the crowded Democratic primary field, candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg have flaunted their ability to speak Spanish. But Castro, 44, a third-generation Mexican American and the only Latino running for president, does not speak the language fluently.
The matter has become something of a litmus test from reporters whom Castro says ask him repeatedly why he doesn’t speak Spanish as though that were essential to being authentically Latino.
It came up in the 2016 presidential campaign, when Castro was being considered as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton, when the front-runner on Clinton’s list, Tim Kaine, spoke fluent Spanish. It came up after his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. And Castro took on the question in a practice session before the Democratic presidential debate last month.
“Speaking Spanish fluently is just one part of the overall connection to the Latino community,” Castro said in an interview with The Post last week. “But mainstream media turns that into the only variable as to whether somebody is Latino or not, which is completely out of line with reality.”
Many U.S.-born Latinos like Castro face pressure from within and outside of their communities to speak perfect Spanish. The expectation is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness about the language discrimination faced by U.S. Latinos, who for decades were prohibited from speaking Spanish in segregated public school systems. Such prejudice is evident today when Spanish-speaking people are berated for speaking the language in public.
Although the number of Hispanics who speak Spanish in the home has been growing, the share has declined — from 78 percent in 2006 to 71.4 percent in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the American Community Survey.
This is because the growth in the Latino population for many years has been driven by U.S. births as the flow of immigrants has slowed over the last decade or so since the recession, said Jens Manuel Krogstad, of Pew.
And for those Latinos born in the United States, their proficiency in Spanish often depends on how long their families have been in the country.
“If one or both of your parents are immigrants, there’s a good chance you’ll be bilingual,” Krogstad said. A different Pew analysis found that about half of second-generation self-identified Latinosare bilingual. But language abilities diminish across generations: Among third-generation or higher self-identified Latinos, fewer than a quarter are bilingual.
Unlike Gonzalez, Castro’s mother never specifically told him she didn’t want to teach him Spanish, he said.
“It just became the routine to speak English, and that was due in no small measure to the fact that Spanish had been looked down upon,” Castro said. “A lot of that oppression was internalized.”
But like Gonzalez, Castro understands more than he can speak. He grew up hearing conversations with his grandparents, and watching Spanish-language television in their home.
“You’re not at zero or a hundred, you could be at 20, you could be at 80,” Castro said.
Proficiency in Spanish, and in any language, is more of a continuum than a box you can check, said Belem López, an assistant professor in the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“People have these constrained ideas that you have to speak English perfectly and Spanish perfectly,” López said, “but really that doesn’t exist.”
Only a generation before Latinos faced criticism for not learning Spanish, American educators tried to prevent Latinos from speaking it. In the early 20th century, English-only curriculum was the status quo in American schools, said Laura Muñoz, an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It wasn’t until 1947 that a federal court in California ruled against segregated schools for Mexican students. And even in the 1960s and early ’70s, it was common practice for teachers to hand out detention slips when students spoke in Spanish in the hallways, on the bus, in the schoolyard.
“That was better than earlier, when they would wash their mouths out with soap, or paddled them with a ruler,” said Victoria-María MacDonald, a retired assistant professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on Latino education.
Now just a half-century later, Latinos can both be attacked for speaking the language and for their inability to speak it.
Viral videos show Americans berating restaurant employees, and even threatening to call immigration enforcement authorities, for speaking in Spanish. Last year, 22 percent of Latinos in the United States said they had been criticized for speaking Spanish in public, according to Pew.
Yet Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) attacked Parkland activist Emma González for precisely the opposite: “ This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish,” he said. In a 2016 Republican presidential primary debate, Republican candidate Sen. Marco Rubio slammed Ted Cruz, another senator and GOP candidate, by saying he couldn’t speak Spanish.
“It’s quite easy to victim blame,” said Amelia Tseng, assistant professor of world languages and cultures at American University. Many, including within the Latino community, blame parents for failing to carry on the language, “as if it were their fault.”
Latinos are expected to speak impeccable Spanish, while non-Latinos are showered in praise for speaking imperfect Spanish. When white Americans learn Spanish, “it’s seen as enrichment,” a sign of high social status and education, Tseng said. In part, Tseng added, this is because their “American-ness” is never up for question.
“If Tim Kaine goes out on the street and speaks Spanish, no one is going to shout at him, ‘Speak English, we’re in America!’ ” Tseng said.
Vanessa Gonzalez, who serves as executive vice president of field and member services at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, has dedicated her career to advocating for the Hispanic community and communities of color. She previously served as the communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Yet she said she has often faced assumptions — and painful questions — in the workplace about her Latina identity. Previous employers have asked her to do translations or make statements in Spanish on camera, assuming she could speak the language.
“People used to be like, ‘You don’t speak Spanish?’ ” Gonzalez said. “No I don’t, but I could tell you what policy issues need to be discussed. I could tell you how that impacts our community. I think that’s where the street cred comes in.”
On a recent Tuesday night, Gonzalez walked into her apartment with her nearly 7-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who wore a pink bow and Minnie Mouse backpack. Their small white rescue dog, Oliver Sprinkles, barreled toward them as Alexandra took unicorn-shaped lip balms out of her backpack.
Alexandra had just returned from a day of summer camp at her school, Mundo Verde. It’s a bilingual school in Northwest Washington, where she takes classes in English and Spanish and where her Spanish-speaking friends call her Alejandra.
The school was a godsend for Gonzalez. Alexandra has already grown up proud of her Mexican roots. She calls her mom’s close friends tias. She celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead by placing a photo of Gonzalez’s grandparents on the living room bookshelf.
But when choosing a school for her daughter, Gonzalez yearned for Alexandra to learn the language of her ancestry.
“At least she won’t have some of that heartache,” Gonzalez said. “I just felt a wave of relief because she’s going to do it. She’s got another shot at something I didn’t get to do.”
Yes, Gonzalez is part of a group of third-generation Latinos who have lost a great deal of the language of their grandparents. But she is also part of a wave of Latino parents intent on encouraging their children to carry on the language.
Among self-identified Hispanics, 88 percent said it is important that future generations of Hispanics living in the United States speak Spanish, according to Pew. Muñoz of the University of Nebraska said she has seen, in her own generation, Julián Castro’s generation, a recommitment to the language. Castro also said his daughter, Carina, studies at a Spanish immersion school.
“I think what we’re experiencing is a reparation,” Muñoz said. “We are literally repairing our own cultural identities. We’re going back, we’re interrogating history, we’re asking ourselves more about our past and we’re making some corrections.”
When she’s home with her daughter, it feels natural for Gonzalez to sprinkle in the Spanish phrases she remembers from her childhood.
“Alejandra, can you set the table please?” Gonzalez called from the kitchen. “Dinner’s almost ready. Ándale.”
As they sat side by side at the kitchen table, Alexandra handed one of her last meatballs to her mother.
“No quiere? Yo como,” Gonzalez said to her in Spanish, offering to have the last bite.
Later that night, after Gonzalez brushed her daughter’s hair, she sat with her under the covers, reading a bedtime story. Earlier, Alexandra had read a bilingual children’s book about the Tejano pop star Selena, carefully pronouncing sentences like “she adored her fans. Adoraba a sus admiradores.”
But for tonight, Alexandra flipped through a book in English, telling the stories of 100 extraordinary “rebel girls” in history. Among them was the artist Frida Kahlo — a girl who was proudly Mexican, just like her.