The dinner table is filled with quiet murmurs of “sí” and “no” as 17-year-old Cody Mascorro faces an issue unique to his peers, he cannot properly communicate with his parents.
With two Mexican immigrants as parents, the primary language spoken within the household is Spanish. Cody, although he can understand it all, finds that his difficulty lies with speaking the language, as at an early age he was forced to assimilate to the English language.
As the second child in this family, I grew up witnessing the struggles that Cody encountered over time.
My parents already had practice with raising bilingual children. Their first son, Kevin, who was born in Mexico, learned English when they moved to the U.S. I learned the English language from Kevin and the cartoons I had seen on T.V. before Spanish, which in turn created another tricky scenario that my family had to navigate. They were relieved after seeing that Cody, similarly to Kevin, had picked up the Spanish language first. It wasn’t until Cody entered the school system when the unexpected happened.
Living in the predominantly Caucasian town of Middleville and attending the Thornapple Kellogg School District, Cody was very different from his peers. When first arriving to school, he struggled with speaking English. While his classmates attended kindergarten every other day, Cody was enrolled in multiple sessions and would attend every day to catch him up, but this still wasn’t enough. The school district expressed interest in holding him back a year to try and advance him more, but our parents refused and insisted that he move onto the next grade level.
With the scare of knowing that their kid was struggling, our parents began to feed him English content and would encourage Kevin and I to use English around him, as we were the only ones who spoke it. With a variety of different methods, slowly enough, Cody began to catch up and was no longer considered to be an “at-risk” student. However, at the cost of not falling behind academically, Cody ultimately lost his ability to speak the Spanish language.
Over time, Cody became shy and quietly spoke with more hesitation. If he didn’t have to speak Spanish, he wouldn’t, which led to conversations with our parents becoming shorter and shorter.
Although communicating with his family might seem like the only issue he may encounter, Cody, along with many other Latinos in the U.S. who do not speak Spanish, faced the larger issue of struggling with his identity and having it questioned by peers, friends and even family.
Are you even Latino?
Within the U.S., the number of Latinos is increasing every year, however, as shown in a Pew Research Center study done in 2017, the number of those who speak Spanish is decreasing. 71% said that you didn’t need to speak Spanish in order to be considered Latino, and, at the same time, nearly 90% said that it was important for future generations of Latinos to speak Spanish.
Looking back at the results of this research is a bit ironic. A majority of people want the future generations of Latinos in the U.S. to speak Spanish, but how many of them actually speak the language? Part of this belief has to do with the shame that many have received from others due to their lack of knowledge of the language, something Ferris graduate, Edith Moreno, has firsthand experienced.
At a young age, Moreno struggled heavily with Spanish. Being the daughter of two immigrants, a mix of English and Spanish was spoken at home, with English being the main language used. It was a trip to Mexico, where she was taunted and made fun of by her family members for her minimal Spanish, that made her want to properly learn the language.
“It was really hard hearing those things at such a young age, especially from my own family. I felt like I wasn’t properly accepted into my own culture,” Moreno said. “It motivated me to properly learn, and thankfully I can speak it fluently now, but I struggled heavily with my identity.”
This feeling that Moreno experienced is commonly referred to as “language insecurity” in the academic community, and is especially common among second-generation Latinos in the U.S.
Amelia Tseng, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution and a scholar in residence at American University, where she studies multilingualism and identity, spoke about this topic in an article published by NPR by the title of “Can You Lose A Language You Never Knew?” in 2018.
“They kind of feel like they can never win,” Tseng said. “They’re just very aware that any moment they could be told, ‘You’re not doing it right,’ and there’s sort of a challenge to that part of their identity.”
With multiple barriers to bilingualism, such as social pressure, stigmatization and discrimination, Tseng believes that growing up monolingual isn’t anyone’s fault, and that it is important to accept all identities, not only the ones we deem to be correct.
Similar to Moreno, Ferris sports communication junior Matthew Dominguez-Sandoval grew up in a family that mainly spoke English at home. Although he understands the language, his ability to speak it is much less than his peers. He mainly struggles with pronunciation.
“My family was really culturally aware and embraced our roots a lot, but it was really rare for us to speak Spanish at home,” Dominguez-Sandoval said. “It did affect me a lot. Whenever situations arise where I might need to use my Spanish, I get a bit uncomfortable because I don’t want anyone to make fun of me.”
Another study from the Pew Research Center done in 2017 showed that language abilities diminish across generations. Meaning that if one or both of your parents are immigrants, there’s a good chance you’ll be bilingual, however, less than a quarter of third or fourth-generation Latinos are bilingual.
A contributing factor to these numbers is the history of the Spanish language in the U.S. education system. In the early 20th century, students would be punished by being paddled or having their mouth washed out with soap for speaking Spanish in the classrooms or even the hallways, Victoria-María MacDonald, a retired assistant professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on Latino education, wrote in an article published by the Washington Post.
This continued on into the 1960s and early 70s. Teachers would hand out detention slips when students spoke Spanish anywhere, from the bus to the schoolyard. Although this is no longer common practice in the school system and the popularization of immersion schools (schools where two languages are integrated into everyday curriculum) has begun, Latinos still face hostility in their everyday lives for speaking the language or for their inability to speak it.
“Latinos are expected to speak impeccable Spanish, while non-Latinos are showered in praise for speaking imperfect Spanish. When white Americans learn Spanish it’s seen as enrichment, a sign of high social status and education. This is because their “American-ness” is never up for question,” Tseng said.
Being Latino isn’t a language
Growing up with constant criticism from others can be harmful to one’s mental health and can have a variety of outcomes. It could lead one to fully learn the language, such as how Moreno did, or become afraid of speaking it. Cody’s father, Sergio Mascorro, feels that his son experiences the latter of the two.
Sergio’s interview was translated into English for the clarity of readers.
“Deep down inside, I think that he knows how to speak Spanish. He’s not a big talker, but I think part of his problem is that he gets really anxious or scared that he’s going to say the wrong thing or mispronounce words, so he stops himself from saying anything at all,” Sergio said.
Sergio himself struggles with the English language, but the difference that he notes between himself and Cody is that he is not scared to make a mistake and speaks confidentially, even if no one is able to understand him. To him, the only way to improve is through practice.
Sergio also attributes Cody’s complex relationship with the language to where he was raised. Being one of the few Latinos in the town of Middleville, there weren’t many people that he could relate or talk to.
“Both of my other children, and even nephews, after graduating or leaving this town, learned to fully embrace their culture and grew so much. I feel that the same will happen with him. Although it is a nice community to live and grow up in, he isn’t able to grow to his full potential here.”
Which is something that I could confirm. Living in a small community that wasn’t diverse, hindered my abilities to embrace my culture and held me back from who I truly was.
Despite his struggles with the language, Cody has a deep passion for his culture and doesn’t think he is any less of a Mexican because he can’t properly speak, as he indulges heavily on the other aspects.
“There’s a lot more to being Mexican than just speaking Spanish; there’s the food, the celebrations, the clothes, the sports and even just the way of living,” Cody said. “There were times where I did feel like I wasn’t enough because I couldn’t speak properly, but overtime, and thanks to a few trips to Mexico, I learned that knowing the language is only one part of it and that I am a valid Mexican.”
Cody is currently taking Spanish classes in school to learn how to read and write. His biggest goal and motivating factor is being to talk more to his parents.