A quick look inside her downtown restaurant, The Empanada Lady, and it’s easy to see that Elisa Milan bleeds her Puerto Rican heritage.
She has made sure that the space is peppered with nods to her Afro Latina heritage through art, various pieces of colorful paintings, and a color scheme befitting the small, tropical Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean.
The one thing missing: She doesn’t speak Spanish.
“I do not think your ability to speak Spanish makes you authentically Latino,” the 32-year-old chef and restaurateur said. “Since I have opened up a restaurant, I am constantly dealing with a test of, ‘Am I Puerto Rican enough? Am I Black enough?’ It’s been like that forever. But specifically with the restaurant, the test of who you are is extremely demoralizing. Being authentically Latino should be primarily based on your bloodline and ancestors.”
Milan, who was born to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father in California and raised in Baltimore, said there weren’t many opportunities to speak Spanish in the home, which is why she doesn’t speak it.
“Moving around, my mother wasn’t around her Spanish-speaking community and family. It was just me, my mom, and my dad. The use of the language stopped happening,” recalled the Timonium resident. “My father is not Puerto Rican and didn’t speak Spanish. And who she was in the house with, and the relationships she had to form in the community — everyone in Baltimore was speaking English, so because of that, the Spanish was lost.”
As the country marks National Hispanic Heritage Month through Oct. 15, the notion held by some that one has to speak Spanish to be authentically Latino in America is controversial and evokes painful feelings for many.
The debate raises questions about immigration, colonialization, racism and identity within the nation’s fast-growing Latino community, which now stands at 62.1 million people. In fact, the Latino population throughout the Americas contains millions who do not speak Spanish, including Indigenous, Black and Asian people. And the official language of Brazil is Portuguese, which is also spoken in other South American countries.
A 2023 Pew Research Center report found that while most Latinos in America speak Spanish, 24% of all Latino adults say they can only carry on a conversation in Spanish a little or not at all. And 65% of third- or later-generation Latinos say they cannot carry on a conversation in Spanish.
The report also found that more than half of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish have been shamed by other Latinos for it. And while three-quarters of Latinos say they can speak Spanish, 78% didn’t consider fluency a necessary component of being Hispanic.
For Milan, the negative reactions are not always as blatant as people flat-out making fun of her; it’s a change in the way other Spanish-speaking Latinos interact with her once they discover she is Latina and cannot speak fluent Spanish.
“If I’m at the host stand or at the front, they will say, ‘Well, who is Puerto Rican here?’ I will say, ‘It’s me. I’m Puerto Rican. I’m Afro-Latina,’” she said. “And then they will say something in Spanish. And I won’t understand. … And then the demeanor changes. The face breaks down. And then it will lead to more questioning. It goes down a line of questioning, which goes into the test of authenticity. It goes to what Puerto Rican or Latina looks like to the person.”
Giuliana Valencia-Banks, Baltimore County’s chief of immigrant affairs, said there are bigger issues facing America’s Latino population than the ability to speak Spanish.
“I don’t think we can police Latinidad,” she said, using the more inclusive term that refers to the breadth of the Latin American people without reducing their similarities to any single trait. “It ignores historic practices. It takes up the oxygen in the room and ignores issues that affect the community. Are you going to move to a blood quota system? The pandemic has ravaged our community. And we are still being affected by it. Latinas make 57 cents on the dollar. There is an increasing dropout rate of Latinas in public schools. We lose focus of the issues and systems that need to be addressed to support our community so that it is able to flourish.”
Edwin Perez, a Spanish teacher in the Baltimore County Public Schools, believes Latinos need to be more welcoming of all Latino and Spanish language origin stories.
“The true answer to authenticity and Latino language identity lies in our general acceptance of all the different language routes — intentional or imposed — that an individual has to experience in relation to Spanish language acquisition and proficiency,” the 44-year-old Towson resident said. “We need to leave authenticity behind because it undermines the full catalog of contributions that all of the members of the Latino diaspora make toward a broader acceptance of a diverse and welcoming linguistic Latino identity.”
Negative reactions to not speaking Spanish
The shaming mindset is often tied to one’s age and when they immigrated to the United States, according to Gabriela Lemus, executive director of Maryland Latinos Unidos, a Baltimore-based network of organizations, businesses, and individuals who support Latino and immigrant communities.
“Older immigrants who came in the ’60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, language is their point of reference,” she said. “They feel that if you don’t speak Spanish, they are not a real Latino.”
Lemus has also found that younger Latinos who are “more fluid about their identity” are now more apt to become fluent Spanish speakers.
“They go out of their way to learn Spanish to carry on their family tradition. They hang on to it hard. There are so many variations. It’s everything all at once,” she said.
Even though Claudia Towles is fluent in Spanish, she is repulsed by the thought that other Latinos are shamed for not speaking the language.
“I think that there are all types of shaming in our culture right now. It’s one of those things I have seen, witnessed, read and been around. To do that is absolutely wrong. To claim that someone’s heritage is not authentic because they do not speak the language is ignorant,” said Towles, 44, who was born in Colombia and raised in the United States and whose 22-year-old son is also fluent in Spanish and English. “For anyone to push their views on what is authentic, it’s not something I align with.”
More than the language
While a shared spoken language unites many Latinos, there are a number of factors at play when establishing authenticity.
Haydee Rodriguez, a Baltimore City resident who identifies as a Jewish Latina, does not think speaking Spanish defines one’s Latino heritage.
“Speaking the language can add dimensions to one’s heritage, as well as an understanding of the nuances of culture — but there is so much to what makes us human, and what makes us human as defined within the confines of ethnicity,” Rodriguez said. Spanish was spoken in her home growing up, she said, and while she doesn’t speak Spanish on a daily basis, she considers herself to be fluent.
“It [language] is one component of cultural identity. But there are many cultural identifiers,” said Lemus.
Even if there are first- or second-generation Latinos in America who do not speak fluent Spanish, they will likely have strong ties to ancestors in Latin American counties, Lemus believes.
“You grow up in the United States, but you still support that culture. You have tied back to your parents’ country of origin. You might eat Ecuadorian food. Your terminology is Ecuadorian slang. That’s the thing about migration. All those pieces don’t go away. That carries with you,” said Lemus, who was originally born in Mexico City, but grew up in Puerto Rico. “I recognize that many people come to the United States to live. They get married. They have children. The generation becomes integrated. They might go back later and learn Spanish. I don’t think that takes away from your cultural identity.”
Towles, who is a real estate agent and politician based in Fells Point, said that when it comes to the Latino immigration model, there isn’t just one.
“You can’t pigeonhole anyone’s experience as less authentic. Being part of a culture — the Hispanic culture — is embracing the different trails that brought us to the United States,” she said.
Historic opposition and the need to assimilate
One of the reasons younger Latinos might not speak Spanish is by design, according to Valencia-Banks, who was born in Cajamarca, Perú, and has lived in the U.S. since the age of 6.
She pointed to the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster decision, which ended Mexican-American segregation in California public schools. Once public schools were forced to integrate, many Latino children were forbidden to speak Spanish in school and were punished when they didn’t obey those rules. Seventy years later, that same racism and bigotry makes some Latino children afraid of speaking Spanish, she said.
“We have to think about the pressure put on the parents of children and their ability to pass on their language,” she said. “We have made it harder. Growing up, our teachers told my mom not to speak Spanish to her children. ESOL [English as a Second Language] kids were told you shouldn’t learn Spanish. For folks like my mom, she thought that was ridiculous. And she ignored it. And I’m glad she did. Some families don’t have that luxury. Because you are hearing it from a person of authority, you assume it is right. As a result, families aren’t able to pass that language down. They take it as the final say. We have kids who are immigrants who are afraid to speak their native tongue.”
Valencia-Banks said that the practice of punishing Latino children for speaking Spanish in schools continues to this day. “Teachers are suspending them for speaking Spanish, she said. “I wish I could say this happened in the past. But there are teachers who harass students now for speaking their native tongue. To police our Latinidad based on the people who colonized our ancestral homeland does our community a disservice.”
Fear might be another reason for a lack of Spanish-speaking Latinos. During the Trump administration, when there was an increase in anti-Latino rhetoric by the then-president and his allies and severe actions against those in the country illegally, a 2020 Pew Center study showed that 20% of Hispanics had been criticized for speaking Spanish in public and 19% had been told to go back to their home country. Twenty-eight percent of Hispanics said they had experienced other forms of discrimination or been treated unfairly due to their background.
Some say a desire to better fit into mainstream American culture has helped to diminish the presence of Spanish-speaking Latinos in this country.
Perez, the teacher who lived in Puerto Rico until moving at age 4 to Florida, where he was raised, believes that this assimilation takes place more frequently with youth and adolescent populations.
“This type of assimilation occurs when youth want to avoid feeling left out, embarrassed in class, to avoid being punished or to avoid being excluded by peers,” Perez said. “In some schools we often see students that shy away from their culture and linguistic identity in favor of the dominant U.S.-based cultural influences. In some school districts, this is sometimes spurred on by an oppressive subculture or by increased pressure from monolingual staff and students.”
The creation of Latino cultural clubs and student unions helps to keep these linguistic and cultural traditions alive, according to Perez.
“These student organizations also serve as a place for student advocacy and action against linguistic or cultural oppression,” he said.
The hiring and retention of Spanish-speaking staff and teachers also helps, according to Perez.
“These efforts help to promote the use of Spanish outside of their homes and in a safe and supportive environment while at school,” he added.
One family’s experience
Isabel Mercedes Cumming, Baltimore City’s inspector general, grew up speaking Spanish but says she does not speak fluently, but “rather rough conversational as my verbs are often off.” However, she understands Spanish and has conducted interviews in Spanish for victims.
“I believe it is a huge plus to be able to speak or understand Spanish. But that certainly does not define whether you are Hispanic,” she said.
Cumming, whose mother is Puerto Rican and taught Spanish in college, said she witnessed her mother “teased” because of her heavy accent.
“It made me angry,” she said. “It is a form of bullying in my book and I will always fight against bullying.”
One of her two children speaks Spanish, she said. The other has expressed regret about not learning the language.
Cumming’s son, pro skater and fashion designer Joey Jett, said that despite not learning Spanish due to a learning disability, he appreciated the cultural lessons that his grandmother gave him.
“She taught me so much,” he recalled, adding that he has never been shamed by others for not speaking Spanish.
Jett, 25, who has traveled the world as part of his skateboarding career, sees the advantage that learning his ancestor’s native tongue would have given him.
“It would have been such a plus to speak the language in all the Spanish-speaking countries I visited,” he said.
A headline has been updated to correct the Spanish translation of a question.