by Lila Quintero Weaver, with Cris Rhodes, Ph.D.
According to the Pew Research Center, broken Spanish (or no Spanish at all) is a reality lived by a growing number of Latinx, especially youth.
Although many Latinx children and teens tackle Spanish confidently and with smooth results, others are not so lucky. As speakers, they fumble for the right words and grammatical constructions. As listeners, they miss out on idioms, inside jokes, and culturally buried subtexts. Often these scenarios take place within family settings, where older members may speak limited English or no English at all.
How do such language gaps affect a young person’s connection to family and community? What is the impact on their sense of cultural belonging or ethnic identity, and on the pride they feel in claiming Latinidad?
Connection, belonging, knowing who you are and where you come from: These things deeply matter, which is why the Spanish-language journey of Latinx youth deserves authentic representation in children’s literature.
Fortunately, middle-grade fiction is addressing the many shades of Spanish proficiency that exist out there, and the most compelling examples come from Latinx authors, whose personal experiences and finely-tuned observations collectively yield a rich and varied picture of how young people in the Latinx community navigate the language gaps they encounter.
Below is a list of recently published middle-grade novels featuring Latinx characters whose Spanish is less than perfect.
*Note: Although this post addresses the role of Spanish in Latinx youth literature, it’s critical to acknowledge that many people connected to the Latinx community speak indigenous languages, whether exclusively or in addition to Spanish. Furthermore, Latinx youth of Brazilian origin are likely to face similar issues with Portuguese.
Listed Alphabetically by Author
The Epic Fall of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
This is the story of how 13-year-old Arturo’s world is set ablaze by love and activism. It happens during a summer in Miami, when a real-estate developer threatens the future of the restaurant run by Arturo’s grandmother, simultaneously affecting the neighborhood’s other businesses and residents. These are the people who become Arturo’s extended “family.” During this momentous summer, he also navigates a heavy crush on Carmen, a girl who brings poetry into his life. With respect to Arturo’s command of Spanish, our reviewer writes: “Growing up in the U.S. has resulted in Arturo’s imperfect Spanish, and yet, he ‘sometimes used Spanish words when English words couldn’t fully explain what I needed to say.’” Read the full review by Jessica Agudelo here.
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
Marcus Vega’s at-school hustle using his towering height and bulk to protect smaller kids from bullies comes to screeching halt when Marcus punches a bully for calling his little brother, Charlie, a derogatory term related to Charlie’s Down syndrome. Fearing that Marcus needs a break, Marcus’s mother resolves to take Charlie and Marcus to Puerto Rico–the home of their absent father. To Marcus, Puerto Rico is a land of mystery, paralleling the mystery of the father whom he doesn’t know. Marcus’s inability to speak Spanish doesn’t prove so much a barrier on the island, where he’s pleased to learn many of his relatives speak English in addition to Spanish, but he is shocked upon arrival on the island that his mother is fluent, having studied Spanish in college. This revelation spurs Marcus to realize his own Spanish isn’t as bad as he’d first thought, as he reads signs and listens to conversations, pleased that he understands even a little of the language. Even as his father’s continued absence makes Marcus feel disjointed, the trip to Puerto Rico helps him realize a connection to his heritage, his paternal language, and his familia. –Summary by Dr. Cris Rhodes
Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
When 7th-grader Paloma Marquez heads to Mexico City to spend a month, it’s not exactly by choice. Tagging along on her mom’s business trip, Paloma arrives knowing little Spanish. Although she packs a Spanish phrase book, she resists the idea that she should learn more. Almost immediately, she’s caught up in a mystery at La Casa Azul, the former home of the famous painter Frida Kahlo, which has been converted to a museum. Also hanging out at the museum are local twins Gael and Lizzie. They become Paloma’s intercambio partners. In exchange for tutoring Paloma in Spanish, the twins refine their grasp of colloquial English, with Paloma’s help. Soon the three kids are swept into the story’s central quest involving a missing peacock ring and some sketchy characters with dangerous schemes. Learn more about this rollicking adventure from our review by Jessica Agudelo.
Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Adriana Dominguez
Stella is shy. When she and her best friend, Jenny, are assigned different teachers, Stella loses the built-in comfort of a ready ally. Forced to make new friends, Stella hopes to find someone who speaks Spanish. How interesting that she specifies this preference, because Stella’s hold on Spanish isn’t solid. In her review, Jessica Agudelo writes: “At school, when Stella feels nervous, she jumbles her Spanish and English, but worries that others will perceive it as weird. When her relatives visit from Mexico, her limited Spanish makes her feel timid because ‘here, around my family, I just don’t have the words to say everything I want to say.’ Stella’s imperfection in each language makes her feel out of sync with both identities. Although it is not uncommon nowadays to proudly refer to this dance between cultures through language as ‘code switching’ or speaking ‘Spanglish,’ Stella’s insecurities reflect a familiar struggle for many first- and second-generation Latinxs growing up in the US.” Read Jessica’s full review of Stella Díaz here.
Lucky Luna by Diana López
Luna Ramos is an endearing character with a mischievous bent. She’s part of a huge and loving Mexican-American family based in Corpus Christi, Texas. At school, Luna is flunking fifth-grade Spanish. How can this be when her last name is Ramos, she asks herself? But growing up in a home where Spanish isn’t spoken, Luna doesn’t have ready access to the in’s and out’s of Spanish. Teachers and family members keep insisting that the person best suited to tutor her is cousin Claudia, a fluent speaker. Trouble is, Claudia is pushy, meddlesome, prone to tattling, and often a thorn in Luna’s side. Initially, Luna figures she’d be better off getting help from a different cousin. Hm, maybe not! Young readers will get a kick out of the hilarious miscommunications that ensue along the cousin grapevine. Will Luna manage to make peace with Spanish?
Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano
Talk about feeling left out! Unlike her older sisters, 11-year-old Leo Logroño doesn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. The oldest two Logroño girls learned at Abuela’s knee, while the middle two have enrolled in Spanish courses at school and are far ahead of Leo. The family owns a bakery, the Amor y Azucar Panadería, famous for its Day of the Dead pastries and for hosting an annual festival celebrating that holiday. In the lead-up to the festival, mysterious events at the bakery put Leo on high alert. Just what are her mom and sisters up to, she asks herself? Leo’s eavesdropping could’ve yielded better results, if only she’d learned more Spanish. For further insights, check out Cecilia Cackley’s review of the novel here. I also recommend this interview with the author, which includes personal reflections on the role of Spanish.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
María Luisa, better known as Malú, is an aficionado of punk rock, thanks to her dad’s influence. When Malú moves with her mom from north Florida to Chicago, her exposure to Spanish intensifies. But although her mom is a scholar of Mexican culture, Malú does not feel competent or comfortable in speaking Spanish. At school, she’s surprised to be admitted into the class section designated for fluent speakers. One of the students in that class sneers at Malú’s Spanish and labels her a “coconut,” a derogatory term that implies Malú is brown only on the outside. Malú’s emotional journey finds expression in punk music and zines, and both lead her to embrace Spanish more fully. See our full review by Lettycia Terrones.
My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver
Echoing my own immigrant experience in small-town Alabama, this novel takes place in 1970 and features 12-year-old Lu Olivera. Lu’s challenges include becoming a better runner. She also faces unfolding conflicts related to school desegregation, as well as a gubernatorial election that turns racist and nasty. Lu’s state of Spanish is rusty, but passable. She manages to interpret Spanish conversations for English-only speakers, and even helps a Cuban neighbor conduct a banking errand, although not without trepidation over unfamiliar terms. On the school bus, a bully delights in teasing Lu about her South American origins, calling her native language “spinach.” Here’s what teen reviewer Corina Isabel Villena-Aldama wrote on our blog about My Year in the Middle.
Readers, this list is far from comprehensive! I hope to add more titles as I learn about them, and I welcome your feedback.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR TEACHERS
Here are some points to ponder regarding Latinx characters and their encounters with Spanish:
- Within a single story, characters’ experiences may reflect multiple levels of Spanish-language literacy, comprehension, and verbal fluency.
- Some characters are raised in homes where no Spanish is spoken or where only one parental figure is fluent enough to speak it. This includes families in which one partner is Latinx, while the other is not.
- Although around 70% of Latinx parents encourage their kids to speak Spanish at home, there are also those who discourage it, perhaps fearing their children will not master English. Such parents are often anxious to shelter their children from racism, while some calculate that limiting Spanish will ease their way in an English-dominant world.
- Parents, grandparents, teachers, and neighbors vary widely in how supportive, coercive, or judgmental they are regarding a character’s level of Spanish.
- In some settings, such as schools and communities, Spanish is prevalent; in others, it’s less common or even rare.
- Characters express a broad range of positive-to-negative feelings about using Spanish or improving the Spanish skills they possess.
- The immigration histories of characters’ families vary widely.
- Some characters also struggle with defining their ethnic identity, and sometimes this is tied to their Spanish-language skills.
- Further complicating the language struggle, narratives sometimes engage with representations of colorism, internal oppression, white supremacy, and racist bullying.
- Spanish words, sentences, and expressions often appear in these stories. Translations are rarely provided within the text–a rapidly fading practice we are happy to see go. Even so, English-only readers will be able to intuit meanings through context.
Relevant articles to explore:
Consider these findings by the Pew Research Center: “Overall, about 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, making it the country’s second-most spoken language. At the same time, growth in the number of Spanish-speaking Hispanics has slowed, according to the Center’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. As a result, the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home has declined, while the share that speaks only English at home has increased, especially among children.” [Emphasis mine]
From the Center for Applied Linguistics, this FAQ addresses the subject of heritage speakers and language-learning programs designed specifically to help them.
Reprinted in TIME magazine, Daniel José Older’s “I Rejected Spanish as a Kid. Now I Wish We’d Embrace Our Native Languages” is an essay that originally appeared in the anthology The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America.
Here’s a poignant reflection by Kevin Garcia on the NPR website, entitled “Can You Lose a Language You Never Knew?”
“12 Reasons People Are Told They’re Not Latino Enough” is a fascinating exploration of Latinx community metrics by Tanisha Love Ramirez. Reason No. 2 is all about imperfect Spanish.
Don’t miss these videos:
Do You Have to Speak Spanish to Be Latino?
“When You’re Latino and You Suck at Spanish.” Humorous–and lightly profane!