English-only Latinos on rise
Many youths carry stigma of not speaking Spanish
The Arizona Republic
May. 5, 2003 12:00 AM
Yvonne Wingett and Mel Meléndez
Rattle off a phrase in Spanish to Andrew Tarango and a look of confusion crosses
The college sophomore is among a growing number of first-, second- and
third-generation Latinos who grew up speaking only English. Now he's joining a
chorus of teens, young adults and professionals crying "Que lastima!" which
means "What a pity."
"Sometimes I'm looked down upon by people who speak Spanish from my
neighborhood," said Tarango, 21, who is taking Spanish classes. "It's like I'm
less of a Chicano than them because I don't speak the language."
While a majority of Arizona's older Latinos speak Spanish at home, fewer young
Latinos living here can say the same.
In an age when Shakira tops the music charts and J.Lo is one of People
magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People," there is a growing group hungering to
discover or reconnect with their Latin culture. For many, the biggest barrier is
Figures from the 2000 census show that of the 629,000 Hispanic adults in
Arizona, 78 percent speak a language other than English at home. That figure
drops to 64 percent among Latinos 5 to 17 years old.
Those figures, experts say, signal a generational divide between those who speak
the language and those who can't.
They attribute much of the problem to discrimination that older Spanish-speaking
Latinos felt as children. Before the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s,
many Latinos felt pressured not to speak Spanish in order to fully assimilate.
Latinos were chastised for speaking Spanish in school. As a result, they chose
not to teach their children Spanish to protect them from the cultural bias they
"I used to come home crying to my mother because I would get in trouble for
speaking Spanish (in school)," said Phoenix College student Clorinda Lozano, 52,
of Peoria. "They made us feel embarrassed of our language."
Today, Lozano's children are not fluent in Spanish because she didn't want them
discriminated against. "I deeply regret that now because people see it as a
rejection of your culture when you can't speak Spanish."
Many Latinos said the price they pay for not speaking Spanish is high. They have
fewer job opportunities; broken ties with their culture; an inability to speak
with grandparents; and feelings of shame and embarrassment when taking Spanish
"It kind of set me back. I want to be in the FBI and you have to be fluent in
two languages," said Tarango, of west Phoenix. "And even now in Arizona . . . it
almost seems that you need to know Spanish to get around. I've been called the
White guy because of it. I'm not Caucasian, I'm Hispanic. I just don't know the
language. It's not my fault, don't hold it against me. I'm trying to learn it
"Language is always an issue in a community because it's one of the things that
unites you as a people," said Amalia Villegas, a Phoenix College counselor and
co-adviser to the Latino student organization A.L.E. (Associación Latina
Estudiantil). "But identity isn't solely based on language. I think we do a real
disservice to ourselves when we think that, because you can be fluent in a
language and not be culturally aware."
Many of those who don't speak Spanish wish they could to avoid being left out of
the cultural loop, said Cordelia Chávez Candelaria, a Chicano studies professor
at Arizona State University.
"If you really don't have an automatic fluency, then you kind of get blocked
out," she said. "You're going to miss out on some things in the Hispanic
Just ask Will McEntee and his best friend, Juan Vidal. One is from Omaha, Neb.,
and the other Chihuahua, Mexico. They come from different worlds, from opposite
sides of the border. Their friendship personifies that growing cultural divide:
McEntee doesn't speak Spanish and sometimes feels like he doesn't fit in the
"I'm half Latino and all of my friends are Latino, so people expect you to speak
it," McEntee said. "I wish I could, too, because people look at you like you're
less Latino if you don't speak Spanish. It's crazy."
"A lot of Latinos expect you to speak Spanish and if you don't it offends them,"
said Jesus Chaidez, a 21-year-old justice studies major at Arizona State
University. "They look at you like you're a sellout because you can't
communicate in your people's native tongue."
However, language is the primary tool Latinos use to discover their roots,
Chávez Candelaria said.
For example, many student organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil
Chicano de Aztlan) and A.L.E. often hold meetings in Spanish,
encouraging a bilingual experience. Hundreds of students travel to Mexico, Latin
America and abroad for foreign-exchange programs to immerse themselves in the
culture and language. And hundreds, like Tarango, have joined Latino-founded
fraternities and sororities, putting them in daily contact with others who look
like them and have similar life experiences.
"Realistically, not speaking Spanish doesn't mean you're not Latino," said
Chaidez, who is bilingual.
"We need to acknowledge that and be more understanding. It's what's in your
heart that counts."
Republic news assistant Robert Varela contributed to this article.