Cultural Assumptions: Language


There is a scene at the beginning of the new season of Orange is the New Black that picks up where we left off at the end of season 4, with Daya holding a gun up to Officer Humphrey. In an effort to gain sympathy, the officer begins to tell Daya details about himself in Spanish, to which Daya annoyingly responds, “I don’t fucking speak Spanish!” I have repeatedly said this many times to many people (minus the profanity), despite the fact that I actually do speak Spanish. I don’t like the assumption because usually with it, comes many other tired assumptions about the Hispanic community and I don’t take that lightly. Particularly in the Washington, D.C. area, the diversity is great so making assumptions can potentially damage a new relationship between a community and institution.

For museums that are pondering ways to attract the Latino audience, it is vital that they do not make this mistake and assume that just because there is a growing Latino population, that we all speak Spanish. Some do, some don’t, some speak a variety of indigenous languages like Zapotec or Nahuatl. This, in my perspective, is stating the obvious but some institutions have yet to learn so I’m saying it again. Know. Your. Audience.

Why not just slap some Spanish on a flyer and call it a day? Well, these assumptions put a lot of pressure on a community that might already feel pressure from within the community itself to respond to a language that they may or may not know. Let me break it down from my own experience:

Latino immigrant parents place importance on assimilation for themselves and/or their children. That means, learning the language (English). Then, some require their children to speak Spanish in the home, while others do not (myself included). My parents wanted me to assimilate 100% so they didn’t care whether I spoke Spanish in the home or not, so I never did. They spoke to me in Spanish, I responded in English. I could have grown up losing my Spanish completely if it hadn’t been for them always speaking it, tbh. But while I did technically know how to read/write/speak Spanish, I knew my fluency weakened from years of not practicing so I never made it a point to tell anyone that I knew Spanish for fear of exposing my American accent to other Latinos. I would straight up lie and say I didn’t speak it (something I still do out of habit though I try not to anymore). To White people, I just didn’t like the assumption and if I told them I did speak it, I didn’t like the expectation that I should now be their teacher and help them satisfy their curiosity of what my Spanish sounds like.

For those who don’t know the language at all, I guarantee they’ve heard a variation of the following from family members or random Latino strangers: “Oh you can’t speak Spanish? That is a shame, you need to learn your language” or, “Your family never taught you Spanish? What a pity.” I’ve had this said to me a million times and the pressure to linguistically acknowledge one’s culture is present in the grave tone when they chastised me. I decided for myself after years of finding out who I was, that I wanted to embrace my culture more and that included speaking Spanish more often. But the last thing I’d need at that time when I refused to speak it, is a mostly-White institution telling me I need to know Spanish, too.

The Latino community is not homogeneous and so many factors play a role in how we respond to what’s being marketed towards us. Assuming with institutional authority that we are all Spanish speakers is also just offensive and shows a lack of research. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, in Washington, D.C., 37.6% of Hispanics only speak English. Of the 62% that speak Spanish, 34% also speak English. Additionally, one key fact to know about the Latino population is that we are young. According to the Pew Research Center, 6 in 10 Hispanics in the United States are Millennials or younger, and most likely to be U.S.-born. So this large group is likely to be English-speaking if not bi-lingual. As the Hispanic population grows, so does the segment of the population born here.

With this in mind, museums shouldn’t also do away with Spanish adverts and translations altogether. In 2010, the Center for the Future of Museums released a paper, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. In it they cite a report by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History where they surveyed Latino visitors on their experience and expectations. Two key points from this report:

  • Latino survey respondents have, “very strong expectations that museums should include diverse staff, bilingual interpretation, Latino perspectives and some Latino-themed content.”
  •  Even though many Latino museum visitors were English-speakers, they still appreciated bilingual signs as “signals” that museums are inclusive and welcoming to immigrant families and non-English speakers.

Latino family units are a blend of language traits from non-Spanish speakers to non-English speakers. There is obviously more to this conversation of linguistic diversity and importance (a part two will eventually come with case studies) but the main point is, the Latino community has so much rich diversity, museums should caution against the obvious trap of pinning this community as a generally Spanish-speaking one. Each institution should do it’s own research, see the results, and adjust accordingly. This community wants to be reached but on its own terms and deserves for museums to prioritize the Latino communities’ diverse needs and do the work it takes to create a genuine connection. 

Featured Image via Minero Magazine.