On a recent Sunday afternoon, I joined a lawyer, a nail technician and a health care educator in dedicating two hours of the weekend to learning a language that is not foreign to us. But it wasn’t a class for school credit. It was a six-week intermediate course for Spanish heritage speakers hosted online by Mil Mundos, a bookstore in New York City’s Bushwick neighborhood.
Natalia Urbina, the nail technician, said while introducing herself to me and the other students that Spanish can feel difficult for her to take out out of her mouth, or “sacar lo de la boca.” “Poco a poco te lo sacamos,” replied our instructor, Kairy Herrera-Espinoza. Little by little, we take it out.
Urbina explained to me more of what she meant in a phone call after class. As a child of Nicaraguan immigrants who came to the U.S., she said she’s always been surrounded by the language at home, in addition to taking four years of high school Spanish. “If I was in a situation where I needed to speak Spanish and it was an emergency and I needed to talk about something important, I could do it,” she said. “But I don’t have it in my everyday life.“
When speaking with people in her neighborhood who are immigrants, Urbina feels embarrassed that she doesn’t speak Spanish like they do, so she sometimes ends up speaking in English, “which is annoying in itself.”
“You know what it’s supposed to sound like, and it’s like, mine doesn’t sound like that,” Urbina said. “You see how fluid Spanish is, and you feel so choppy.”
I can relate. When my Salvadoran mother talks to me in Spanish, I instinctively answer back in English. Spanish stopped being my dominant language once I started attending school, and I am still self-conscious about my stumbling, limited vocabulary. I could only do interviews for this article about Spanish in English. Many Spanish heritage speakers like myself and Urbina are what researchers call “receptive bilinguals,” meaning we can understand more of a language than we can speak of it.
Heritage Spanish programs recognize that Spanish is a U.S. language.
Stanford education professor Guadalupe Valdés has a widely known definition of heritage speakers: “individuals raised in homes where a language other than English is spoken and who are to some degree bilingual in English and the heritage language.”
Spanish heritage programs in the U.S. began in the 1970s as grassroots efforts and have boomed in the last two decades. One 2012 nationwide survey led by language development researcher Sara Beaudrie found that there were 163 Spanish heritage programs in postsecondary institutions across 26 states and Washington, D.C., a number that was 22% higher than what a nationwide 2002 survey had found.
“The goal is to just talk, to move past that discomfort, to find yourself in a safe space to let stuff come up.”
Spanish heritage programs are different from the “travel Spanish” classes that students in the United States typically encounter in foreign language learning. For one, they acknowledge that Spanish is a U.S. language, as the University of New Mexico makes a point to do in its heritage program.
“In [Spanish as a second language] textbooks … they’ll highlight everything but the U.S. That shows students that the Spanish you learn in an L2 program doesn’t belong here,” said Damián Wilson, coordinator of UNM’s Spanish as a Heritage Language program. “For us, it’s very much highlighted that it is a U.S. language. It means that yes, we might speak a little bit of so-called Spanglish. We might say troca [for truck], we might say breca instead of freno,” both meaning brakes.
In other words, a Spanish heritage course goes beyond pushing students to master the present-perfect tense for a study abroad trip; it affirms the evolving speech and debates that U.S.-based Spanish-speaking communities, not foreign language textbooks, actually talk about every day.
In the class offered by Mil Mundos, for example, we learned “Spanish sowed by colonization and shaped by Indigenous influences,” as Herrera-Espinoza described it. We discussed miscarriages of justice in the film “Presunto Culpable,” the anti-Blackness that Gina Torres has faced in her acting career, and race in memes by the social critic Ciguapa.
There were times when students needed to switch to English to complete a thought, and Herrera-Espinoza, who uses they/them pronouns, would then translate what each person meant in Spanish, deftly keeping the conversation moving.
Keeping up the flow of discussion is a strategy that Herrera-Espinoza’s students appreciate.
“They’re talking a mile a minute and they make it very accessible because they repeat themselves a lot,” said jo Valdés, a student who uses a lowercase first name and has taken at least five of Herrera-Espinoza’s classes. “Instead of slowing down, they’ll use Spanglish so people in the class feel understood.”
A heritage class can offer acceptance and a space of shared understanding.
Herrera-Espinoza, who developed the Spanish heritage courses at Mil Mundos, said they saw a need for the classes after a Puerto Rican student dropped out of an earlier foreign-language class, citing the social anxiety of being the only Puerto Rican among a bunch of students who were learning Spanish for the first time.
This resonated, they said, because they’ve seen how Spanish can be “the language that perhaps you were reprimanded in, a language that is emotional but also painful, and it’s difficult to unpack that in a room with people who might not understand what you’re saying.”
Indeed, heritage speakers can experience alienation not only in foreign-language classes that don’t validate their lived experiences, but also from their own families and friends in daily life.
“When I try to talk to my mom [in Spanish], she’ll constantly correct me, or switch to English, or make fun of how I say something, and that has a permeating influence,” said Valdés, whose mother is from the Dominican Republic. “In this set of classes, it’s been particularly nice to speak Spanish with people who sound like me. The goal is to just talk, to move past that discomfort, to find yourself in a safe space to let stuff come up.”
Taking heritage classes improved the relationship Valdés has with themself as a person who grew up surrounded by the language, but not encouraged to speak it. “When you have this thing that is constantly suppressed in you … I think that getting to open that vault has allowed more air into my lungs,” they said. “I feel like there is more fluidity in the way that I think about the world.”
“You’ll have these receptive learners … in these families where Spanish gets used a lot, and they feel isolated,” Wilson explained. “They might even have family members tease them. In their minds, everybody around them is an amazing speaker, and so they end up feeling like they are personally defective. They don’t really realize it’s something that works at the level of our society.”
That’s why for Wilson, who identifies as a Spanish heritage speaker himself, one of the most powerful parts of a heritage program is that heritage speakers gather in a room together and are able to see how common their experiences are.
Take it from Victoria Peña-Parr, who experienced this personally. Once a Spanish heritage student at the University of New Mexico, she now teaches beginner-level heritage classes there.
“He started off the class with: ‘You not knowing Spanish is not your fault.’”
Peña-Parr said her mother made a conscious choice not to teach her children her native language of Spanish, because she wanted them to have “easier lives” in a country that valued English. When Peña-Parr joined her first heritage class as a freshman in college, she finally felt accepted.
“Our teacher at the time, he started off the class with, ‘You not knowing Spanish is not your fault,’” she said. “For a lot of Mexicans, Chicanos, Chicanas — I identify as a Chicana — there is this idea that you have to speak Spanish, and if you don’t, then you’re not a ‘real Mexican.’ Because of that, it was a relief off my shoulders. My identity had been invalidated for so long, and now I’m in a classroom where I feel validated as a student.”
Peña-Parr said language abandonment is mostly a result of generational trauma. People grew up dealing with societal pressure to assimilate in the U.S. and abandon Spanish, or to make it a private language only spoken in the house, and then passed these ideas down to the next generation. Wilson noted that this often happens because speakers believe their children will have better job prospects without a Spanish accent.
Several of the students I talked with said their desire for greater ease in Spanish was not just for personal growth, but for their jobs. Valdés, for example, said they plan to take a private class with Herrera-Espinoza in the future as they train to become an intimacy coordinator.
“I think it’s really important for me to think about as someone who has this language capacity, to refine it, to perfect it, so if I do choose to speak in a context with only Spanish speakers, I’m not relying on my Google translate,” Valdés said.
Taking a Spanish heritage class can transform family relationships, too. Valdés said their Cuban father passed away due to “a clusterfuck of COVID and cancer and heart failure,” but because of Herrera-Espinoza’s classes, they were able to practice with him while he was sick: “I had some of the longest conversations in Spanish that I have ever held with him in my life.”
Valdés was also tasked with communicating hospital updates about their father to family in Cuba. “I remember saying multiple times, ‘I’m so fucking glad I took that class,’ because all of a sudden I needed to get really, really comfortable communicating with my family.”
Valdés grew closer to their family as a result. “A lot of why there was so much distance there was because of the language barrier that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore,” they said.
Fluency is a lifelong journey that heritage speakers get to define on their own terms.
At what point do you become fluent in Spanish if you’re a heritage speaker? There is no shared consensus. Some language researchers see heritage learners as “incomplete acquirers” because of the formal grammar they did not learn growing up, although other critics argue that this terminology is an insensitive, inaccurate label that doesn’t recognize the differences in how language is acquired.
“Spanish fluency is an informal construct that is based entirely on one’s confidence to speak.”
But Spanish heritage programs like the ones I observed follow a glass-half-full approach that celebrates the cultural competency heritage learners already do have. For Wilson, fluency is not a binary category with a cutoff point at which someone is suddenly fluent or not; it’s more about “getting students to realize what areas they want to improve in.”
Herrera-Espinoza told me it’s about confidence.
“I don’t think think that fluency has anything to with literacy, really, especially when we consider that a great portion of Spanish speakers aren’t able to pursue a formal education, so a lot of the Spanish that we do know and that we’ve been raised with is informal,” they said. “I would say that Spanish fluency is an informal construct that is based entirely on one’s confidence to speak.“
Using confidence as a barometer for fluency resonated with me. I took decades of foreign-language Spanish classes, but the Spanish-language heritage class I signed up for in college was the time I felt most self-assured speaking Spanish. And even then, it was tough. I remember that in the beginning I was too shy to raise my hand, a characterization that my Williams College professor María Elena Cepeda confirmed when I called her. I confided to her that I felt guilty for letting my Spanish lapse in the ensuing years.
In response, she gave me a pep talk that may be helpful to other heritage speakers.
“You can recapture it. It ebbs and it flows. Language is elastic, it’s living, it’s not static, even though the world tries to tell us otherwise,” Cepeda told me. “People get very rigid in their ideas about language, and those language ideologies affect us all, and they really came to bear on you and they really come to bear on most of the students. I feel like so much of the work of heritage speakers’ teaching is undoing all of these ideologies and all of this linguistic and cultural baggage.”
Cepeda said she believes in a definition of bilingualism centered on whether you can “get your needs met” in that language. These confidence-boosting answers helped me reflect on what I still could do. I made some of my interview requests in Spanish, and even though participating with intermediate level students in an icebreaker that required us to tell truths and a lie in Spanish had me sweating, I still did it. There were always moments of progress and restarts I could take pride in, if I was willing to see them.
Or, as Valdés put it to me, “Once you lose that pena [shame], once you’re like, ‘I don’t care,’ and just talk, it’s really powerful.”