Regardless of political affiliation, I would find it very hard to believe that any Latino out there didn’t think San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro‘s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week was inspiring. Castro spoke so passionately and lovingly about his abuelita, his upbringing and all the hurdles his family has overcome that I’m sure many Latinos identified with him immediately.

Hearing him sprinkle his speech with Spanish here and there was music to my ears. But I, like many other Latinos out there, erroneously assumed he was bilingual. I don’t know if it was because during his speech he said his grandmother, who didn’t finish elementary school, taught herself to read and write in Spanish. Or because his mother, Rosie Castro, was a staunch supporter of the Chicano movement back in the 70s, belonging to a particular organization called La Raza Unida which believed maintaining the mother tongue was of extreme importance. Then again, maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part.

That’s why it was a letdown to discover that the current Latino star within the Democratic party “doesn’t really speak Spanish,” as Castro himself admitted in a New York Times profile back in 2010. Armed with this information, some in the media wasted no time launching into the tired, old-age debate about whether speaking Spanish makes you more or less of a real Latino. Really? Who cares? Saying that someone is not Latino enough if he doesn’t speak Spanish is as absurd as saying that someone is not American enough if he is bilingual. 

In any event, while everyone debates that topic to death, I, on the other hand, am more intrigued by this: why is it exactly that Latinos like Julián Castro and many others like him don’t speak Spanish? While heartbreaking, the answer is very simple, as Castro’s own mother, Rosie, explained in an interview, this is what her teachers would do back when she was in school:

“They would charge us a quarter if you were caught speaking Spanish, and incidentally that’s how much lunch cost. We were put down so often that the message was clear — Spanish was a bad language that shouldn’t be spoken.”

Although it saddens my soul to hear comments like this one, I am no longer shocked by them. One of the most fascinating aspects of moving from Miami to Denver six years ago, has been getting to know an entirely new — and completely different — Latino culture than the one I was used to in the Cuban-American dominated city where I lived for almost 20 years. You see, the Mexican-American experience in the West and the Southwest is nothing like that of their Latin American counterparts in other parts of the country.

A few months after I arrived in Denver, I started noticing there was a much larger Latino population than I had originally thought. The majority, however, didn’t actually speak Spanish… and that was definitely shocking. After a while, I came to understand that for many, Spanish was a language that had caused them and their ancestors many sorrows, discrimination and hatred, just like Rosie Castro explained in the quote above.

Imagine then why a mom who grew up bilingual but felt the wrath of speaking Spanish would choose to teach their children her native tongue? I’m sure you can see how no mother in her right mind would want her children to be associated with a language that had brought her so much pain. Not to mention that for many immigrants learning to speak English is paramount to both them and their offspring — despite what many anti-immigration organizations would like us to believe. Add to that the many misconceptions surrounding bilingualism, including the unfounded idea that in order to learn English you need to forget Spanish, and you have the perfect answer to why Julián Castro and many other Latinos like him don’t really speak Spanish.

As discouraging as all this is, Ana and I want to — have to — believe that things are no longer like that, that things are changing. We  know from the amazing community we’ve help put together right here that many Latinos who weren’t taught Spanish as children don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps. So they are doing everything within their power to reclaim that part of their heritage.

Not sure if Julián Castro is one of them — though that would be extraordinary. But I do know that, according to different news reports, he was at some point being instructed by a Spanish tutor. Hopefully he’ll decide to pass what he’s been learning to his beautiful little daughter Carina. Not because that will make them more or less Latino, but because I believe in the power of bilingualism. Plus, I’m sure that would make Julián’s abuelita smile down on them from heaven.

This article was also featured on ¡Gracias!

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