Why I Have a Hard Time Wanting to Really Learn Spanish

My last name is Hernandez. It’s like the most Mexican last name ever. Combine that with my darker skin and most people who first meet me assume I speak Spanish fluently. However, my Spanish is very broken and while I crush on Duolingo, my white friends probably know more Spanish slang terms than I do. 

Why don’t I speak Spanish?

Well, first of all I was raised by a dad who didn’t think it was important for my brother and me to grow up speaking it. He claims he doesn’t speak it himself but I know he can understand it and in a time of emergency, I’d bet anything my dad could bust it out. But while I initially would love to be like, “Dad, why didn’t you teach me? Don’t you understand how much I’m screwed over for not being bilingual?”, I have to ask myself to look at it from his perspective. In his defense, he wasn’t raised in a time or place where speaking Spanish was seen as an asset. He is third generation, born and raised in California, but he is one of those Mexican Americans that mostly identifies as “American”. He’s a Marine who settled down to raise his family in a predominantly white Swedish-themed town. So… one shouldn’t be surprised that he didn’t see the value in teaching his children Spanish. 

In his mind, I’m guessing he wanted us to have the most opportunity we could. And twenty plus years ago, that basically meant to carry yourself in a way that makes white people comfortable. Sure, I’d never pass as white based on my appearance but my voice could maybe fool people into forgetting for a second I’m a minority! Speaking without an accent made you intelligent and educated. You wouldn’t be associated with poverty or crime if you sounded white. 

Plus, I didn’t really need to know Spanish. My grandparents speak perfect English and most of my extended family, even those who are bilingual, choose English over Spanish at family functions. So yeah, I’m Hispanic but there are elements about that culture, like language, that the older generations chose not to prioritize for their kids. 

Who can blame them? I would argue most parents try to raise their kids to succeed in today’s world, not speculating how the world will be in 20 years. 

But What About Personal Responsibility?

So some people might be thinking, “But you can learn on your own. Just because you didn’t grow up speaking Spanish isn’t a good excuse for not speaking it now.”

True. I can’t put all the blame on my father. That’s just unfair and unhealthy because I am an adult who is forming my identity influenced by, yet independent from my parents.

But here is where I struggle. 

I had a manager who stressed the importance that I pick up enough Spanish to be sent out on Spanish-speaking roles. He emphasized how it was crucial to match casting director’s expectations based on my name and look. 

I found this super interesting because an acting teacher had warned me this would happen. He had me consider changing my last name to something more neutral, to avoid other people placing me in a box. I came up with a long list of alternatives (quite a fun exercise!) and it was something I seriously thought about doing. But then, an inkling of inauthenticity grew in that I didn’t want people to think I was trying to hide my Latin background. 

So I decided to keep my name and take on whatever assumptions would come later as I navigate my early career. My issue with the manager’s request is that I know for commercial castings, how important improv is and I would be a fool to walk into a room and pretend I could riff in Spanish. Theatrically, it just seems like walking into the wrong pool of competition if I am up against girls who have been speaking Spanish most of their lives. 

And ultimately, I think it’s funny that most white actors and actresses are not expected to be fluent in the language of their family’s ethnic origin, yet I am. For example, how many people in this country speak German? So once again, the standard or expectation is different as an actress of color. 

Am I Being Petty?

Sure. But why not?

I want to audition for roles I am qualified to play. Does this mean I see language as a set parameter? Absolutely not. But I can name you ten actresses I personally know who would be much better suited to play a role of a woman who is Spanish speaking. And I’m genuinely happy for them. Am I missing out on opportunities? No. There are many characters I know I can channel and portray and right now, they happen to be English speaking. 

The industry says it’s actively expanding diverse casting. Well guess what, there is diversity within diversity. I am a mixed race woman with a Mexican sounding last name who doesn’t speak Spanish. Ta da! I might be a rarity but there are stories I am meant to tell because of my personal life experiences and imagination that is unique from others. 

Pero puedo cambiar de opinión 

I’m not saying I’ll never learn to speak Spanish fluently. 

What I’m saying is that at this point in my artistic and creative development, I believe there are other things I can focus on besides trying to sound like I’ve been speaking Spanish my whole life. 

And if I want to learn Spanish, it will be based on a genuine interest in knowing it (like for making trips to Mexico City easier on my friends who have to translate, thanks Jackie!), rather than appeasing an assumption placed on me based on my last name. 

Or of course, if I’m completely uncastable as a monolingual talent of color. 
Then hell yeah, I’ll get a private tutor and finally learn how to make tamales.