College freshman Angie Bravo’s first language is Spanish, but she wishes she were better at it.
The 18-year-old grew up in Laredo, Texas, just across the border from Mexico. Like many of her neighbors, she speaks a version of Spanish influenced by English.
“I think the one that judges me the most is myself, because I want to be able to practice Spanish and be able to carry a conversation fully within Spanish,” Bravo said in late September, standing outside her Spanish class at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Even in a state like Texas, where nearly 30% of the population speaks Spanish at home, there’s a perception that it’s better to speak “pure Spanish.”
But, as Bravo is learning this semester, there’s nothing wrong with the way she speaks the language. It’s just a different dialect than the one spoken in Madrid or Mexico City.
A Dialect Like Any Other
Instead of focusing on grammar and vocabulary, St. Mary’s University’s Cultural Spanish for Heritage Speakers class covers the history and culture of U.S. Spanish, the dialect commonly called Spanglish.
Professor Meghann Peace set up a recent lesson by asking students to match Spanish words with their languages of origin: Greek, Latin, Arabic, indigenous American tongues.
“What history teaches us is that the only constant is change,” Peace said in Spanish. “Whenever two languages have geographic contact they’re going to influence each other.”
She showed the class quotes about Spanglish from poet Octavio Paz and literary critic Roberto González Echevarria — Paz called it “abominable”; Echevarria called it an “invasion” — and asked the students if they ever get negative reactions like that when they speak in Spanish.
Mary Villines said people who only speak Spanish or English sometimes assume she doesn’t speak their language well if she code-switches.
“But what bothers me is that they only speak one language,” Villines said in Spanish. “Who are you to correct me when you don’t even know what I’m trying to say?”
Peace said that people who speak Spanglish actually know both languages well.
“Spanglish is super systematic,” Peace said in Spanish. “Someone who switches between languages in a single sentence follow the syntax rules of both languages.”
Language and Identity
That explanation resonated with Bravo, who said the class is starting to change her opinion of the way she speaks Spanish.
“It's taught me to be a lot more accepting,” Bravo said. “I'm still aiming to be able to carry a full conversation in Spanish … but I didn't really take into account the rules that we don't speak about, but we understand.”
For her, language is intertwined with the changing way she sees herself.
“When I was growing up, I had a lot of issues being Hispanic. I didn't understand, like, what does it mean to be Hispanic? Should I be Hispanic? Or should I be American? And so I think it's because I struggled with that, that I want to be able to do both,” Bravo said. “To be able to speak Spanglish is to be able to say to people that I am Mexican American, and that's okay. I don't have to be either or.”
Bravo said that feels especially important right now “because of the political commotion around what it is to be Hispanic, and all of the violence now being enacted towards the Hispanic groups.”
In August, a man killed 22 people at an El Paso Walmart. The alleged gunman told police when he was arrested that he drove 10 hours to the border town to target Mexicans.
The Role of Culture and Society
Bravo’s classmate, Elisha Carrillo, had a different experience with Spanish growing up. But the class is also helping her better understand her family’s relationship to the language.
Carrillo’s family has lived in San Antonio for generations. Her mom and grandma speak Spanish, but they didn’t really teach it to her. Instead, she learned Spanish in school.
“My grandparents talk a lot about being discriminated in school for speaking Spanish, and, you know, being hit,” Carrillo said. “I think, just like subconsciously, they think we're not supposed to speak that.”
In the 1950s and 60s it was common practice in some schools to punish students for speaking Spanish, even on the playground. At the time, Texas had an “English only” policy for schools.
For Carrillo, learning Spanish in school is a way to reclaim part of her cultural identity. But, at the same time, she gets frustrated by people who expect her to be able to speak the language.
When she studied abroad in Spain last semester, people were surprised to learn she was American. When she was little people would walk up to her in stores in San Antonio and ask her questions in Spanish.
“I think people get confused because they assume if you're Brown, you speak perfect Spanish,” Carrillo said. “People everywhere just expect you to be a certain way because of how you look.”
Carrillo’s professor, Meghann Peace, said her students know more Spanish than they think they do. Several of them were originally signed up for a more traditional lower-level language class.
“They thought they didn't speak it well. And on the first day, I heard them talking, and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Don't even — don't give me that. You do. You do know this,’” Peace said.
Her goal for the class is for her students to practice writing in standard Spanish, so they can use that dialect if and when they want to. But she also wants them to become more confident in their skills, and be able to defend their use of Spanglish.
“A standard dialect is simply the standard because the people who are in power made it the standard,” Peace said. “Why are we seeing this as something bad or unnatural or an attack against the purity of the language? Which is, of course, silly, because there's no such thing as pure language.”
Peace isn’t the only educator working to normalize Spanglish. According to a 2016 survey by Daniel Villa of New Mexico State University, there are roughly 40 universities across the country that teach a course on U.S. Spanish.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille.