Like many Latinxs raised in the United States, I’ve taken shit for not speaking perfect Spanish. Mexicans even have a word for someone like me—someone born to a Mexican family north of the border, who speaks Spanish with an accent. Pocho. In its simplest sense, pocho (literally meaning “faded”) describes an Americanized Mexican. It’s not a compliment, but like any Mexican slur, it gets equal use as an insult and as a term of endearment. Growing up, I even found comfort in the word. In California, I rarely had to explain myself to other Mexican Americans at school. Instead, it was always white kids who took it upon themselves to police my race and ethnicity. “You’re not really Mexican,” they would say when I spoke stilted Spanish.
In Latinx spaces, especially online, there’s a growing consensus arguing that knowledge of the Spanish language isn’t a prerequisite for Latinx identity. It’s sometimes spilled into the wider public. Last fall, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke candidly about her nerves speaking Spanish in front of an audience. (After the congresswoman’s recent conversation with the Puerto Rican rapper Residente, one Latina journalist commented on Twitter, “Her pocha Spanish is so relatable to me.”) And in the most recent Democratic primary, after TV pundits repeatedly questioned Julián Castro’s identity because he didn’t speak Spanish, the former San Antonio mayor lamented that the media treated it as “the only variable as to whether somebody is Latino or not, which is completely out of line with reality.” The ability to speak Spanish, he told The Washington Post, “is just one part of the overall connection to the Latino community.”
This discourse has resonated with many Americanized Latinxs. But missing from this discourse about Latinx identity is the reality of people who never spoke Spanish to begin with. After all, Spanish—like English—is a colonizing tongue. Today, across Latin America, millions instead primarily speak Indigenous languages. For these people, the consequences of not speaking traditional Spanish fluently can be serious and dangerous. And as climate change, political violence, and migration patterns have uprooted these communities from their homes, many of these same people now face similarly oppressive environments within Latinx communities in the United States.
Hilaria Cruz, like me, was singled out by other students in grade school for not speaking Spanish. Cruz, however, was born and raised in Mexico. She grew up in the country’s mountainous southwestern region, living in a community of Chatino people, an Indigenous group that has inhabited the peaks and canyons of Oaxaca for thousands of years. As a child, she spoke a rare form of the Chatino language with her family; it wasn’t until she was 8 that she heard Spanish for the first time. Her parents wanted her to get a formal education, and since Mexico offered no schools in Native languages at the time, her family walked five hours into the nearest mestizo town (“mestizo,” in a simplified sense, means a mix of native and Spanish culture). At her school, the children would form mobs and chase the few Chatino students, shouting racial slurs at them: “Indi*s! Indi*s!”
Cruz, now an assistant professor in the department of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville, has studied how the Spanish imposed their language on Native people in Mexico. She says that soldiers, missionaries, and interpreters traveled North America throughout the 16th and 17th centuries creating maps. When the Spanish reached the mountains in modern day Oaxaca, they asked the people living there for their name and language. They responded that they were called the qne-a tnya-e, and their language was Chaq-f tnya-b. The Spanish heard “Chatino.” They christened a town in one of the canyons and called it San Juan Quiahije, the same town that Cruz walked five hours from so she could attend school. Five hundred years later, the town still resembles a colonial frontier in many ways: Native people face blatant discrimination, and the language barrier prevents their access to many social services. For Cruz, the most fundamental institutions of the state—the schools, the courts, the hospitals—all existed in Spanish.
Cruz is not alone. In Mexico, millions of citizens speak Nahuatl, Mixteco, Zapoteco, and over 280 other native languages (including over 40,000 Chatino speakers). In Paraguay, Guaraní shares status with Spanish as the official language. In Guatemala, people speak over 20 different Mayan languages. In northern Colombia, the village of San Basilio de Palenque was founded by escaped African slaves, and today their descendants speak Palenquero, a blend of Portuguese and Kikongo, a Bantu language.
For many Indigenous people across the Americas, repression and colonial violence didn’t end with European rule. Cruz recalls that in the mountains where she grew up, Spanish-speaking landowners constantly push to expand their farms into Native land, often with bloodshed. In the Amazon basin, illegal logging and gold mining have constantly encroached on Indigenous peoples’ lands. Along with deforestation and violence, the land grabbers may have recently brought the coronavirus to some isolated Native groups in Brazil. During the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, US-backed regimes committed genocide against Maya and other Indigenous people.
In recent years, severe violence, climate change–fueled drought, and entrenched poverty have forced hundreds of thousands of Native people to leave their communities, especially in Central America. Many have made their way north to the United States, meaning that the brunt of the repression the US government has enacted on the border since 2014 has largely fallen on Indigenous people: In the last two years, five of the seven migrant children who died in US custody have come from Indigenous communities, and in immigrant detention centers across the country, lawyers have described a translation crisis, as both the government and NGOs fail to find translators for Native people in their court proceedings.
For Indigenous people who successfully immigrate to the United States, the presumption that Latinxs all speak Spanish can have serious repercussions. With the spread of Covid-19, the stakes are even higher. For example, few informative resources on proper hygiene and social distancing exist in Indigenous languages (though there have been some valiant efforts). If Native people need emergency care, hospitals across the country may incorrectly call in Spanish interpreters. In 2008, a Chatino woman named Cirila Baltazar Cruz (no relation to Hilaria Cruz) gave birth in Mississippi, but had her baby torn out of her arms by child protective services, after the Spanish-language translator incorrectly interpreted the mother’s description of her living conditions. It took over a year—and a Southern Poverty Law Center legal case—for her to get custody of her daughter back.
Indigenous people and Afro-Latinxs also face a structural racism that reaches across Latin America and extends into “Latino” communities in the United States, in which immigrants who speak Native languages are often ostracized. Scholars have a term for this latter form of racism: linguistic discrimination. Spanish-speaking ability in a country like Mexico, or English-speaking ability in a country like the United States, can work like skin tone: a gradient that correlates—with heartbreaking consistency—to wealth, educational access, and even life expectancy.
Afro-Latinxs also endure intense racism that often centers on language. In the United States, Cardi B—who is a Dominican Afro-Latina—has spoken out about facing racism for her accent in English, and facing bigoted challenges to her blackness simply because she speaks Spanish. Even in Spanish-speaking countries, Dominicans (a majority-black population) often face prejudice because of their accents, which get unfairly criticized as “deficient” Spanish. (Meanwhile, Hatian Creole speakers in the Dominican Republic face often brutal exclusion for not speaking Spanish at all.)
“Stereotypes about language and stereotypes about racial categories get co-naturalized—they get constructed together,” says Jonathan Rosa, a professor of education at Stanford University. Rosa says that linguistic discrimination doesn’t affect only foreign or minority languages—in the United States, racists have often criticized African American Vernacular. “Language is never too far from the picture when you talk about any racialized population,” he says. “That population’s language is always stereotyped as linguistically deficient.”
There’s irony in the fact that many people in this country will call both Cruz and me “Hispanic” or “Latino.” If Latin Americans speak many different languages—and if language is only “one part” of what makes someone Latinx, as Castro says—what, then, actually defines Latinx identity? What do I, in California with my Spanglish and my quesadillas, have in common with a Mapuche person in southern Chile speaking Mapudungun and eating milcao?
At the offices of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, or MICOP, Indigenous identity in the context of Latinidad, or “Latino-ness,” is a critical part of everyday work. On any given day in MICOP’s headquarters, on California’s central coast, the office is filled with the sounds of Mixteco, English, and Spanish as people go about their work building political power among Mixteco immigrants, especially among California’s farmworkers. MICOP was founded to help strengthen Mixtec and Indigenous community living in Ventura County. (While Mixteco people are native to southwestern Mexico, tens of thousands of Mixtecos migrated to the United States in the 1980s and ’90s.)
Genieve Flores-Haro, the associate director of MICOP, says that one of the fundamental challenges the organization faces is how to work with the concept of Latinidad: “If you ask certain members of my staff, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m Hispanic’; others will say, ‘I’m Latino, Latinx.’ Then others members will say, ‘No. I am not Latino, Latinx. I am Indigenous. And then there’s another sect that takes that even further and says, ‘No, I am not even Indigenous. I’m Native.’”
When I ask her about it, Hilaria Cruz says she “finds it a little silly” that people in the United States use “Latina” to refer to her. In the states, the people who called themselves “Latino” were the same people who in Mexico asked her to go back to her community to find them a muchacha, a maid. “The only thing they thought Indigenous people were good for was to be servants. So when I get grouped with these people, I don’t take it really seriously. I know I come from a very different experience, even though I now speak fluent Spanish.”
Cruz’s attitude is mirrored by many Native people with a Latin American heritage living in the United States. While Americanized Latinxs often wave a broad, ostensibly inclusionary banner of Latinidad, many Native people and Afro-Latinxs maintain a more separatist attitude: Why search for a place of belonging among one’s own oppressors? Such groups have promoted the idea of the abolition, of Latinidad, which many see as a white supremacist construct, and an empty form of solidarity that both buries racial violence and erases black and Native experiences.
When I ask Cruz about what should be done, she says she’s not focused on identity as much as the practical issues such as health care, which has been made all the more serious during the pandemic. “It doesn’t feel like an imposition to me,” she says of Latindad. “But it does bother me that there’s not a recognition of the existence of linguistic diversity in [Latin America]. This is the same reason, when Indigenous people seek access to medical care, that doctors and nurses will be completely ignorant and call a Spanish interpreter. And if the patients can’t understand the Spanish interpreter, then they don’t get help.”