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Over the summer, I spent five amazing weeks in Madrid taking classes through a Penn study-abroad program. When I told people that I was going to Madrid to finish up some Spanish courses to complete my Hispanic Studies minor, many people questioned whether the time I spent studying Spanish was worthwhile. There have been countless people that ask me and assume, “Don’t you already speak Spanish. What’s the point?” 

Yes, I do speak Spanish. However, that doesn’t mean that I know how to read or write it. In the past, I’ve had teachers single me out during lessons. They don’t understand how a “heritage speaker” can have novice-level grammar mistakes. Most of them assumed that I knew Spanish fluently since I was very young. 

In reality, I have been studying Spanish since sixth grade up until now. Personally, I wanted to know as much as I can and learn different types of Spanish dialects. I’ve had a multitude of Spanish teachers with Cuban, Spanish, and Colombian backgrounds. Through these experiences, I have been able to learn and develop my understanding of how diverse the Spanish language is and connect with other students that are from different backgrounds other than mine. 

My perspective on this issue comes from being the son of a first-generation immigrant family. A lot of people assume that if you’re Latino, you automatically speak your family’s language. On top of the classroom struggles I’ve faced, there’s also the sentiment that if you don’t speak Spanish, then you are “less Latino” and more “gringo” or “Americanized.” To me, that’s is not true. 

There has been a lot of controversy in Spanish-speaking communities of what defines your “Latinidad” or “Latinness.” Many people think that the biggest piece of your identity is knowing your family’s native tongue. If you don’t speak Spanish, then you aren’t really “Latino.” Most of these sentiments come from older generations that believe that if the youth isn’t acquiring the language, then an integral part of the Latino identity is being lost.  

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I believe that your connection to your identity and family’s heritage isn’t defined by whether or not you know how to speak the language. There are many other cultural facets that people engage in that they celebrate proudly that reflects their background. These cultural markers come in different forms like wearing traditional clothing, eating delicacies, celebrating specific holidays, and even practicing certain religions. It is never too late to start learning a language. It may be harder, but there is always the option for younger people to pick it up later on in life.   

College freshman Valery Aguilar has had a similar experience. “Even though I am not fluent in Spanish, it shouldn’t diminish the fact that I am a Latina,” Aguilar said. “At the same time, being a person of color and a Latina woman in America is hard enough. I do not need any more hassle from my own community just because I don’t know Spanish perfectly.” 

This problem is not just unique to the Latino community. I have many friends that come from first-generation Asian immigrant households that face similar issues. Some of them do speak their family’s native tongue perfectly, but others barely know it. 

Every family situation is different. For me, most of my family speaks Spanish and only some speak English. I took it upon myself to learn Spanish because I wanted to connect better with my family members living in Ecuador. On the other hand, my little brother speaks very minimal Spanish but understands it. No one in my family judges him and it will be up to him if he wants to learn it on his own later on. 

The time I spent in Madrid helped me reflect on the various aspects of my life including my identity. It really made me think hard about what constitutes being the product of Latino immigrants. Trying to classify and divide members within a culture by certain criteria is not valid. There are many aspects that contribute to an individual’s belonging in a group they identify with. 

CARLOS ARIAS VIVAS is a College sophomore from Stamford, Conn., studying communication. His email address is cariasv@sas.upenn.edu.

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