When the United States government and Latine organizations first began using the term “Hispanic” in the 1970s, they attempted to bring together people from disparate Latin American countries living in different parts of the U.S. To do this, they created a general identity, and central to that identity was the language that united Latin America.
Today, while most Latines in the U.S. consider Spanish part of the Latine identity, its exact place remains undefined. A 2015 Pew poll found that 71 percent of Hispanics said speaking Spanish isn’t necessary to be considered Hispanic. But Spanish and its survival still matters, with 95 percent of Latinos saying it’s important for future generations to speak the language.
“It’s aspirational, in a way,” said Frances R. Aparicio, professor emerita of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latina and Latino Studies at Northwestern University, about hoping the language lives through generations. “I say that only because in many cases, people have a desire to see their children speaking Spanish fluently, and it doesn’t happen. That’s the reality. We still live in a country that is very English-dominant.”
The importance of Spanish and its tie to Latine identity in the U.S. will always depend on the value a community gives the language. This might vary depending on whether a community is made up of first- or later-generation Latines, for example, or whether a community has a history of being forced to abandon the language, as was the case across many parts of the Southwest.
“The exact relationship [between Spanish and Latine identity] is hard to say,” said Tomás R. Jiménez, professor of sociology at Stanford University. “It’s pretty dynamic depending on the community. This is very subjective. Language is an important part of culture, and it’s an important part of how people identify themselves and each other. There are many ways to use a language to identify oneself with, let’s say, a particular ethnic group. Sometimes it is the fluency of a language. Sometimes it is just pronunciation. Sometimes it’s knowing a word or two.”
There is a history in the U.S. of systematic pressure on children to never learn the language and even on parents to never pass it on. Too many Latines have stories of parents and grandparents who faced discrimination and punishment in school for speaking Spanish and, to prevent the pain from being carried onto another generation, let the language die out with them. Despite Spanish’s presence since before the Mayflower landed, the United States is still an English-dominant Anglo country.
This means that Spanish in the U.S. has to exist, to some degree, in relation to English. When immigrants from Latin America arrive in the U.S., they begin to understand their identity differently. While they may strongly identify with their national origin most of all, they become part of the larger Latine community that brings together the different cultures of Latin America into an all-encompassing identity. Yet Spanish is still only one aspect of Latine identity.
“I think the way people sometimes conflate Spanish, the performance of Spanish, with Latino identity is so problematic because it is only one icon of many things that make us Latino,” Aparicio said. “There are so many other things that make people Latinos. So if you only use Spanish as the marker, what happens to the other things?”
Aparicio notes that it might be better to think of our identity in terms of conditions. All Latines have been impacted by colonialism and U.S. imperialism in some way. It is often foreign intervention into their native countries that led them or their predecessors to immigrate to the U.S.
“Our long history of colonization, our history of how we’ve been racialized and how we have been excluded from being considered worthy of being fully American—all of these are some of the elements that allow us to think about ourselves as Latinos,” Aparicio said. “It’s a shared experience of having been subjected to U.S. imperialism.”
As for Spanish itself, Aparicio said that we should think of it in relation to the culture and different experiences of the people who speak it. Spanish was imposed on the Americas by Spanish conquerors and has been spoken in these lands since before the English colonies were founded.
“Language can have different meanings,” Aparicio said. “It’s about how people manipulate language and what the context is.”
Part of that context is how established an immigrant group is in the U.S. Jiménez believes we are currently at an inflection point in the role that language plays in Latine identity, as the Latine population becomes more U.S.-born and less of an immigrant community. Most of the Latine population growth no longer comes from immigration but instead comes from Latines born in the U.S., a change earlier immigrant groups like the Irish or Italian also experienced.
A hundred years ago, if someone called themselves Italian, people expected them to speak Italian, Jiménez said. “As the population changed and intermarriage happened, people changed their notions of what it meant to be a real, authentic person from that group. But identity was always rooted in the idea that you have ancestry. And ancestry is invented—it’s made up. Ancestries are social constructs.”
Yet ancestry is still the primary way that most Latines validate their claims to Latine identity.
“You have to be able to validate yourself as having ancestral ties. That’s the key thing. If you say you’re Latino, the ancestry will have to be there,” Jiménez said.
As Latinos grow in numbers, and as newer generations become more established within the U.S. and inevitably prioritize English over Spanish, the role of language will change. Latine ancestry will likely survive in the U.S., but whether it is tied to Spanish, either as a spoken language or a language remembered, is unclear. There’s a chance that Spanish goes the way of many other languages that once were ubiquitous among prior waves of immigrants but eventually died out.
We can’t say for sure how important Spanish will be or whether it will even survive the shifts of the Latine population in the U.S. But while it is not necessary to speak Spanish to identify as Latine, it is still, for now at least, a cultural feature that many Latines value. Our connection to the language remains.