What heritage speakers have to say about Spanish class



Many heritage speakers feel pressure in their Spanish classes to perform perfectly to avoid judgement from their peers, resulting in an uncomfortable classroom environment.

Every time my Mexican grandparents visit my family, one of the first things they ask me is, “How’s Spanish class going? Perfect grades?” I always laugh in response and confirm that yes, Spanish class is going well. However, there are a lot of challenges that come with being one of the only Latina students in my Spanish class.

I have always taken pride in how Spanish was my first language. I’ve spoken in Spanish with my mom since I was a child. However, as I got older and attended school in English, the Spanish language stopped being a constant in my life. Eventually I lost fluency.

Once I began taking Spanish, I quickly realized that it was extremely frustrating to try to explain to my classmates that while I am Latina and Spanish is my first language, I am not fluent, so from an early age I began keeping the fact that I was Mexican largely to myself. However, as I grew confidence in my identity and became more vocal about my Latina ethnicity, I began to notice the harmful misconceptions about why Latinos choose to take their heritage language as a class.

One of the most damaging assumptions is that heritage speakers such as myself are under- challenging themselves for an “easy A.” According to Junior Rafa Mendez, oftentimes people judge heritage speakers and believe they are taking their heritage language out of sheer laziness.

“When I tell my friends that I’m taking Spanish, they’re like wait, but you’re Mexican! Why are you taking Spanish? You can be seen as lazy or stupid for taking the language that your parents speak,” Mendez said. “If I ever ask one of my classmates for help they look at me like I’m stupid, but I’m just learning Spanish, the same way everyone else is.”

One of the biggest challenges I face as a Latina living in a predominantly white area is the limited opportunity to get exposed to Spanish language and culture. For me, this has led to feeling isolated and at times, like an imposter when in my native country or around other native speakers.

Oftentimes when I visit Mexico, I find myself trying so hard to “sound fluent” around native speakers that I end up tripping over words. Sometimes I’m even scared to order food at restaurants, worried that the waiters will see through my less-than-perfect accent and switch to English to try to accommodate me.

These types of experiences in my native country are precisely why I take Spanish in school. Gradually losing fluency in my first language has made me acutely aware of how difficult it is to feel culturally connected to other Latinos without the tool of Spanish. My family also feels strongly that I must be around Spanish every day, which is why they find it so important that I learn the language in school. However, every Latino student has their own personal story behind their choice to take Spanish in school.

Senior Sara Gonzalez said that she feels that her peers don’t realize the depth behind her choice to take Spanish.

“The reason I take the language is actually the opposite of what people think. I want to be more connected to my culture. Growing up here I’ve never really had the opportunity to do that, and Spanish class is really an outlet for being able to try and reconnect with a part of my family,” Gonzalez said.

Amidst the Westernized curriculums of most core classes, opportunities for Latino students to learn about their culture in an intentional and structured way are few and far between. Spanish class is one of the only classes where I have ever been formally taught lessons about my community and heritage.

However, it can be difficult to learn about your family’s personal culture without representation in the classroom. Gonzalez said that getting the opportunity to learn about her culture is something that she really values about her Spanish class.

“We do a lot of learning about Hispanic and Latino culture, and one of the units was very, very connected to my family’s history. It’s really frustrating when people don’t take it as seriously as they would in any other class, like English or History,” Gonzalez said. “They’re just going through the motions and they don’t really care about the content, and that’s my family we’re talking about. When you’re in these classes, it just doesn’t feel like a safe space.”

Senior Charlotte O’Neil said that given her Latino heritage, she feels a more personal dedication towards the cultural aspect of what she’s learning in class.

“A lot of people treat it as an elective, or a joke, but for me it’s much more than that. It’s the class that I want to learn the most in, so when other people are just treating it as a mark for their report card, it messes with my ability to personally connect with my culture,” O’Neil said.

Assumptions that Latino students should always be “the most fluent” or not make mistakes in Spanish creates an added pressure that can hinder their ability to learn with an open mind.

“I’ll be sitting in class and people will automatically assume that my Spanish is perfect, it’s like there’s this higher expectation. I feel insecure that if I do make a mistake or don’t ‘sound fluent’ that all of my peers are going to look towards me with judgment,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like your measure of ‘how Latina’ you are matches up with your ability to speak Spanish. So if your ability to speak Spanish falters a little bit, people will think you’re not ‘as Latina.’”

Junior Mariana Sanchez Dahl said that oftentimes her peers don’t recognize the fact that there is a lot of variety in the Spanish language within the Latino community. She said that if people recognized this, they would be less inclined to assume that the heritage speakers should already know everything.

“A lot of the time in Spanish class we’re learning Spanish from Spain, and there are a lot of different conjugations. Everybody expects you to know everything when that’s not really the reality,” Sanchez Dahl said.

The level of variety within the Latino community is something that I have always known about but didn’t have too much real life experience with, so Spanish class often came as a shock to me. I remember feeling extremely confused when my fifth grade Spanish teacher told the class that the Spanish word for car was “carro,” when I had grown up using the word “coche.” Convinced that my teacher had simply not known the Spanish word for car and covered it up by taking the American word and adding an extra “o,” I came home and indignantly told my mom that my teacher was teaching us the wrong Spanish. I was perhaps even more shocked when she explained to me that both words were right and that Spanish words often varied depending on the Latino country. I am grateful that over time I have been able to learn about the amount of variety in not only the Spanish language but in Latino culture.

Marta Fuertes is a Spanish teacher at the high school and is involved in the creation of affinity Spanish classes, which are projected to be available in the 2024-25 school year. One of the main goals of the class is to connect students who share common history, according to Fuertes.

“We want to nurture pride for our Latino students, some of whom don’t have a strong sense of identity yet and are still confused about how they should identify themselves,” Fuertes said. “It’s also about celebration within communities. We want to give these students more tools to be more proficient and fluent in their language and more knowledgeable about the diversity within the Hispanic world.”

O’Neil said she believes it would be a really good idea for the school to create a class for students who identify with the culture but also want to learn it at school. She said this would create a safe space that would be much more beneficial towards her learning and overall enjoyment of Spanish class.

“The safe space classroom would be especially beneficial for me because a big insecurity I have is about being a white-passing Mexican, because people always invalidate my identity, especially my peers in Spanish class where I’m supposed to ‘know everything,’” O’Neil said. “I think being around students who are connected to the culture like me would help me a lot.”

My identity as a Latina has also always been a touchy subject for me, due to the combined factors of being white-passing and my lack of Spanish fluency. The only people who truly make me feel validated in my identity are other Latinos who, like me, are in the process of trying to either learn or relearn Spanish. For that reason, when I heard that this affinity class was being created, I was overjoyed for what it would mean for future Latino students. I am certain that if I had been provided with a safe space to learn Spanish with other students who share my identity, my relationship with myself and my culture would have evolved for the better.