Many third-generation Hispanics don’t speak Spanish, but their parents do. Why?

Congressman Joaquin Castro, others explain why language may have skipped a generation

SAN ANTONIO – A Pew Research Center study found that nearly 70% of second-generation Latinos in U.S. are bilingual and fewer than a quarter of third-generation Hispanics speak Spanish.

It’s why KSAT’s Alicia Barrera and RJ Marquez spoke with a professor at Our Lady of the Lake University on KSAT News Now about the topic, and she says the loss of Spanish between generations was generally a way of parents protecting their children from punishment or ridicule that they themselves had experienced.

“When someone criticizes the way you speak or the way you say certain things,” Dr. Maribel Larraga, Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences at OLLU said. “They are criticizing you as a person.”

Third-generation Latinos who don’t speak Spanish are not uncommon, and arguably one of the most influential Latinas of our lifetime was third generation and didn’t speak Spanish fluently.

Yes, La Reina, it is well known Selena didn’t speak Spanish growing up. She learned it later in life as she rose to fame.

Other third-generation Latinos who don’t fluently speak Spanish, are a pair of prominent political figures from San Antonio, the Castro brothers.

Congressman Joaquin Castro said his grandmother spoke mainly Spanish, but he said after his parents were punished for speaking Spanish at school he and his brother, former San Antonio mayor and presidential candidate Julian Castro, were taught English.

“It really is just a generation of people who had a language literally beaten out of them in our school system,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said. “And it’s so tragic and unfortunate because it was not only the loss of a language, but also partly the loss of a culture.”

Norma Ochoa is seventy years old. Her first language was Spanish, and while in school in San Antonio in second grade she said a teacher shamed her for speaking Spanish in the classroom and it made an impact on her.

“I felt she demeaned me, and I felt that I wasn’t good enough to be there, and I just didn’t, I didn’t want to go to school,” Norma Ochoa, a second-generation Latina, said. “So after that, you know, after maybe a week or two at school of having all that cast upon me, I just felt like I didn’t belong there.”

That ostracization led to the decision to only teach English to her children.

“I definitely decided that I was not going to let this happen to my daughters,” Ochoa said.

Norma’s adult daughter Nicole Ochoa Malesky said she knows her mother did this out of love and protection. She doesn’t blame second-generation parents for not teaching their children Spanish, but instead society from that era.

“I felt very separated from my culture,” Ochoa Malesky said. “I felt very... I wasn’t considered Anglo and I wasn’t considered Hispanic. So then where did I fall?”

Castro said just because a Latina or Latino doesn’t speak Spanish it doesn’t make them less Hispanic. He said there are so many different ways to embrace your roots.

“There’s so much more to the culture than just the language,” Castro said. “So I hope that folks will be proud of who they are, regardless of whether they can speak Spanish or not, and that folks will accept people, you know, even if they don’t speak Spanish perfectly.”

Ochoa Malesky said she wants to embrace that part of her heritage, saying it’s who she is. She said she wants her children to feel that freedom. She said that fear creates a sense of people being quiet or not wanting to talk about things.

“That’s not the world that we live and we have to, we have to voice out,” Ochoa Malesky said. “As I’ve gotten older and had children of my own realizing that I want to give my children that education, I don’t want that history to be erased. That the stories that we tell, that’s how we gain compassion and empathy and a love for all people and all beings is to understand we’re a multicultural world, we don’t live within.”

Castro said he’s passionate enough about the language to make it a goal.

“I would love to be fluent in Spanish and I’m resolved before I die to actually get there and be able to speak it fluently,” Castro said.

About the Authors:

Sarah Acosta is a weekend Good Morning San Antonio anchor and a general assignments reporter at KSAT12. She joined the news team in April 2018 as a morning reporter for GMSA and is a native South Texan.

Azian Bermea is a photojournalist at KSAT.