Julián Castro is going through his own personal version of the Spanish Inquisition.
The 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful keeps being pestered about not speaking Spanish fluently by white journalists on the East Coast whose understanding of Mexican Americans is a taco short of a combination plate.
MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt recently asked Castro why he didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. He responded: “In my grandparents’ time and mom’s time, Spanish was looked down upon. You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. ... People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English. And I think that in my family, like a lot of other families, that the residue of that ... is that there are many folks whose Spanish is not that great.”
As a journalist of color, I’ll co-sign.
I have a confession: During my 20s, I pretended that I didn’t speak Spanish. In fact, I spoke it pretty well — at least compared with many other Mexican Americans. I could converse with my grandparents, who spoke no English. And later, when I started working full time for newspapers, my Spanish improved. Only when I was in Mexico City, meeting with academics or government officials, did I feel out of my depth.
Of course, I’ve never been satisfied with the quality of my Spanish, and I’ve always wished I spoke it better. I need a larger vocabulary. And I speak slowly because I think in English — and then translate what I’m thinking into Spanish.
It was a major accomplishment when, at a recent Spanish-only event for Latino fathers and sons, I managed to interview my own father in Spanish for an hour. I used every word I know — twice.
Still, for a long time, I preferred to keep private the fact that I spoke any Spanish at all. It was nobody else’s business.
Welcome to my lifelong therapy session. Mexican Americans are cursed by idiosyncrasies — over nationality, culture, language.
It wasn’t until my early 30s, while living in Dallas, that I got my head on straight. I met a beautiful girl from Guadalajara who went to college in Mexico and graduate school in the United States. While she could speak, read and write in both Spanish and English, she saw me as just another monolingual American. Then, one day, I had an interview on Spanish-language television. I opened my mouth and all these Spanish words came out. The girl was stunned, as if I had committed cultural fraud. Luckily, she married me anyway.
Why the charade? I was fed up with ethnic litmus tests. Attending college in New England, my fellow Mexican Americans and I majored in “Identity Crisis 101.” We were mostly assimilated, light-skinned, monolingual English speakers who masked our own insecurities by poking at everyone else’s.
That game gets old. Eventually, I rebelled by setting out to prove that one didn’t have to speak Spanish to be a full-blooded Mexican American.
Here’s what you need to know: This is a touchy subject for my tribe. So you all need to back off. If you want to insult us, make it over something else.
You can bet Castro, who I’ve known for nearly 20 years, is thinking the same thing right about now.
Despite a few scripted lines of Spanish now and then, my friend knows he doesn’t speak it well. But, he also gets the irony.
Society told us to master English, and now criticizes us for not speaking Spanish. Our parents were punished for speaking Spanish, and now we get bashed if we only speak English.
And, even as people like me — and Castro — get attacked for not speaking Spanish, there are videos circulating on social media of Latinos being attacked in public for speaking Spanish.
Still hung up over language, America needs counseling. I’ll see if my therapist has any openings.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.
Navarrette is a member of The Washington Post Writers Group.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the Washington Post Writer’s group. His email address is email@example.com.