Julián Castro Shouldn’t Have to Explain Why He Didn’t Grow Up Knowing Spanish

Jul 2, 2019
4:26 PM

“Why don’t you speak English?” “Why don’t you speak Spanish?”

If you are Latinx in America, you’ve probably encountered one or both of these questions. If you are Latina, you’ve learned that you have to be twice as good at your job, to earn half as much. You’ve learned that you have to be perfect (and at times even perfect is inadequate).

Being Latinx also means you understand that you are held to an impossible standard to prove you’re sufficiently American. If that wasn’t exhausting enough, you also know that you are held to an impossible standard to prove your Latinidad.

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro faces these impossible standards, which are often at odds with one another, on a national stage.

During an interview in the days following the first Democratic debates, Kasie Hunt of NBC News asked Castro, “You didn’t grow up knowing Spanish. Why did that happen in your life? For people who don’t understand why someone of Latino heritage might not [speak Spanish]?”

Let me help you out, Kasie. In February of this year, a white woman screamed at Sergio Budar, a restaurant manager in West Virginia, “You are in America, you need to speak English.”

Budar pushes back, “I am U.S. citizen.” But the woman was relentless in her vulgarity. “Get the fuck out of my country,” she responded.

Just days after, Budar shared more about the incident:

In May of 2018, a 3-year-old girl spoke in Spanish while shopping with her mom at a Walmart. Another shopper, a Colombian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, wasn’t having it. “You need to teach this kid to speak English, because this is America… if not, you need to get out of this country,” the woman told the child’s mother.

And how we can forget the now infamous New York City incident when attorney Aaron M. Schlossberg lost his shit because the staff at a deli were speaking Spanish? “Every person I listened to [spoke Spanish]. He spoke it. He spoke it. She’s speaking it. It’s America,” Schlossberg said.

Those incidents are only a handful of racists examples from the years of our Lord 2018 and 2019. Julián Castro was born in 1974, less than six years after students across the state of Texas organized walkouts to protest, among other things, being physically struck for speaking Spanish in the hallway by teachers and staff.

Castro responded to Hunt’s question saying “In my grandparents’ time, in my mom’s time, Spanish was looked down upon. You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. You were not allowed to speak it. People, I think, internalized this oppression.”

It isn’t a surprise that many racist people in the U.S. believe Latinos should speak English only, as though we didn’t, in fact, speak the language. According to a report by Pew Research, the overwhelming majority of Latinos do speak English, 68.4 percent of all Latinos and 89.4 percent of U.S.-born Latinos speak it at home.

But then there are the Latinos who say you aren’t Latino enough if you don’t speak Spanish. Giancarlo Sopo, a self-described Catholic, American-Cuban, Media Strategist, wrote in a tweet, “Julian Castro was raised in San Antonio, TX. As per the 1990 Census, 55% of the city’s residents were Hispanic and 47% didn’t speak English at home. Castro skipped Spanish because he didn’t care to learn it, not because he was “oppressed.”

But I grew up in San Antonio in the mid-90s, and as a seventh grader, I was ridiculed for not speaking English. A classmate yelled out in class “Why is she [Julissa] in the honors math class? She is a Mexican, she doesn’t even speak English.” Secretary Castro was too kind in his response. Latinos were not only oppressed in his grandparents’ time. It’s happening today. We are oppressed on every side. I am now bilingual but when I visit my family in Mexico and search my mind for a Spanish word for a little too long, a tía is sure to say, “ay no, ya se le olvidó de dónde viene” (“oh no, she forget where she comes from”).

Some people praised Hunt for asking the question and giving Castro “space” to explain himself. Castro’s opening line was this, “the best place to start is to say that there are a lot of Latinos who have lived here for generations. My grandmother that I grew up with got here over 100 years ago, in 1922.” In other words, Latinos, we’ve been explaining ourselves for a long time and it’s time we stop. In fact, just earlier this year, Castro had already explained himself on NPR.

Julián Castro shouldn’t have to explain himself any more, and neither should we. We are enough. We are American, we are Latino, we’ve been here a long time —and some of us just got here— but regardless of our language skills, or time of residency in the U.S., we need to break away from impossible standards that only break us apart. Enough.


Julissa Arce is a speaker, writer and nationally best-selling author of My (Underground) American Dream and Someone Like Me. She was named one of People en Español’s 25 Most Powerful Woman of 2017. She is a leading voice in the fight for social justice, immigrant rights and education equality. She tweets from @julissaarce