San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Opinion: Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make you less Latino

At last week’s Democratic National Convention, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro stepped into the spotlight with a rousing keynote address. Suddenly everyone wants to know more about him. The broad outlines of his life are intriguing; Castro grew up in a single parent home, the son of a fiery community activist. He is handsome, with a broad smile and an identical twin brother. But aside from his impressive speech, the media has zeroed in on Castro’s language ability, or rather, his lack of it.  He is not fluent in Spanish, which merited headlines in The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post.  The New York Times called it “a fact he isn’t eager to advertise.” The implication seems to be that Castro is less than authentic because he doesn’t speak perfect Spanish. However, it is pointless and misguided to use language as a litmus test of whether Castro is “really” Latino. The truth is that he is fully emblematic of his generation of Hispanics.It is not unusual for a Latino politician to not speak Spanish. Like the rest of us, some do, some don’t. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) are bilingual. Texas Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz told Fox News “My Spanish is lousy.” Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval does not speak Spanish either.

These politicians reflect the larger Latino population. According to the Pew Center, 38 percent of Hispanics are Spanish dominant, 38 percent are bilingual, and 24 percent are English dominant. Pew research shows that Hispanics follow typical patterns of linguistic assimilation: the first generation speaks primarily Spanish. In the second generation, the use of Spanish falls while the use of English rises. By the third generation, English is the dominant language. Castro doesn’t speak Spanish because he was raised speaking English.  His mother recalls that, as a child, she was punished in school for speaking Spanish. “We were put down so often that the message was clear, Spanish was a bad language that shouldn’t be spoken,” she told CNN. As an adult, her son has studied Spanish privately.Still, it sometimes seems like Latinos cannot win. If we do speak Spanish, we are criticized for it. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has complained that Hispanics “are not interested in linguistic or cultural assimilation,” while Newt Gingrich once referred to Spanish as “the language of living in a ghetto.” Yet if we don’t speak Spanish, we are accused of not being genuine.

Castro can take solace in the fact that having one’s authenticity questioned is a rite of passage for minority politicians. In 2007, the media wondered whether then-candidate Barack Obama could relate to African-Americans, since he was biracial and had lived outside the U.S. Time Magazine ran a headline asking “Is Obama Black enough?” Obama ignored such speculation and the rest is history.

True, it would be better for Castro’s career if he were completely bilingual. But that doesn’t mean he is “less Latino” than anyone else.  The late Tejana singer Selena studied Spanish with a tutor, and the actress who immortalized her on film, Jennifer Lopez, admits her Spanish is not great. No one ever accused these icons of not being “Latino enough.” And many Hispanics who say they don’t speak Spanish know more than they realize. They may be self-conscious of gaps in their vocabulary, or lack an understanding of Spanish grammar, but their comprehension is often quite good.

No one – not a politician, not a celebrity, nor an average person – needs to be fully bilingual to be a “real” Latino. Language is only one aspect of our rich culture. Most Hispanics know this; it’s just going to take time before the media catches on. For now, Julian Castro is a political star on the rise – and that’s all that matters.

Opinion: Not speaking Spanish doesnt make you less Latino raulreyescrop politics NBC Latino News

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.

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