John Paul Brammer is the writer of the advice column and forthcoming book “¡Hola Papi!”
The 2020 Democratic presidential race is the national conversation right now, and it’s happening in plenty of languages. Kirsten Gillibrand has shown off her Mandarin. Social media fawned over Pete Buttigieg’s Norwegian (and Dari and Maltese and, I don’t know, Elvish, probably). On the NBC debate stage, Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker deployed some choppy Spanish in an appeal to Latino voters. But only one candidate has drawn attention for being monolingual.
Julián Castro, the Mexican American former mayor of San Antonio, a city with a large Latino population, only knows English. Commentators and political opponents alike have hardly let him forget it.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) brought up the presidential candidate’s lack of Spanish in a racist tweet in October, saying Castro and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, had to take Spanish lessons to “qualify as retroactive Hispanics.” In 2016, when Castro, who is also a former secretary of housing and urban development, was rumored to be a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton, pundits questioned his Latino bona fides. The subject reared itself again after last month’s Democratic debates, what with Castro not being able to show up Booker and O’Rourke. Castro’s shaky closing remarks, in which he used the wrong preposition in Spanish, got him dinged.
But back in 2016, Castro shot back that demanding that Latinos speak Spanish represents a “very one-dimensional, uninformed view.” He’s right. Because, while bilingualism is for many Latinos a treasured aspect of maintaining community in the United States, Castro’s monoglot experience is just as authentic — and even more uniquely American.
During a recent interview, Castro revealed more about his family’s history with Spanish. “In my grandparents’ time, in my mom’s time, Spanish was looked down upon,” he said. “You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. You were not allowed to speak it.” He said many Latinos have “internalized this oppression” and desired their children to only speak English.
It’s true in my own family. My abuelos, first-generation Mexican Americans, lived in southern Texas and struggled with English. My grandmother dropped out of elementary school because of how difficult it was to speak the language, let alone fully assimilate. My grandfather eventually became the first in his family to go to college, and when the two had children, they decided, either consciously or as a matter of unspoken practicality, to raise them with just English.
That meant that as I grew up in rural Oklahoma, my only exposure to Spanish was through my abuelos themselves and not my mother or my household. I would listen to mariachi music with my abuelos or overhear their conversations with each other and other Mexicans, but I couldn’t understand what was being said. It wasn’t just a loss in the practical sense, as my abuelos might have hoped, but also in a cultural sense. It ended up making it more difficult for me to navigate my identity. I felt a massive absence, a negative I would have to work around.
Picking up the language later on, as I tried to do, is hard. When you live in an environment where Spanish is either considered dead weight or a sign of cultural invasion from an undesired people, speaking it can be punished, as Castro mentioned. When I tried practicing in high school with my Latino friends, a teacher scolded me: “This is America. We speak English.”
Of course, it’s not as though speaking only English allows Latinos to escape the rest of their marginalized status. Castro was grilled on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” for introducing an immigration plan right out of the gate. The show’s host, Bill Maher, said that Castro opening with immigration was like if Barack Obama had first campaigned on reparations. It’s a familiar Catch-22 for Latinos: not speaking Spanish raises complaints that they are not authentic enough, but actively engaging with issues that affect his or her community renders them one-dimensional.
So much of the culture of Latinos in the United States is about navigating loss, contemplating the high price of assimilation and attempting to excavate identities our elders felt they had to bury. As I became an adult and realized I wouldn’t be fluent anytime soon, I learned that it’s not just Spanish that makes us who we are. It’s also our food, our music, our way of seeing the world. And for so many, it’s having had Spanish, and not having it anymore.
I’ve come to see that unburying process as the most central aspect of my culture. So it’s nice to catch a few phrases in a debate from O’Rourke, but Castro’s relationship with Spanish is what really feels authentic. It’s his professed struggle that resonates most profoundly with me and feels the most spiritually Chicano — even more than it would if he had gotten his prepositions just right.