(WEST PALM BEACH, FL) -- Seventh-grade Spanish class was the first time Alex Del Dago sat down with the intention of learning his father’s native language. Although simplistic, this class served as the gateway for meaningful communication with his grandma, whom he calls abuela, who only speaks Spanish.
His abuela tells him that she’s glad he learned the language and that his ability to speak Spanish has improved their relationship.
“I knew that if I didn't put in the work or put in the practice to learn it, I may never be, never be able to actually have like a real substantial conversation with her,” Del Dago said.
According to the Pew Research Center, "Hispanic identity fades across generations," with less and less people with Hispanic heritage identifying as being Hispanic. Similarly, the more generations a family has been in the United States, the less likely they are to teach their children Spanish. But some Gen-Z Latino-Americans are reclaiming their culture via language, learning it later on in life, such as Del Dago.
From 7th grade through college, Del Dago studied Spanish through courses at school. His dad was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States when he was 4 years old, along with his younger brother and parents. The family left Cuba during the Freedom Flights of the late 60s and early 70s.
Del Dago’s dad had a difficult time learning English without a program for non-native speakers and he didn’t feel like his son fit in with the other students in class, which influenced his decision to speak to Del Dago exclusively in English.
“At the time [my parents] decided it would be better just to raise me speaking English because they thought it would be easier for me to fit in and adjust and make friends quickly,” Del Dago said.
This isn’t unusual either. With each generation, the number of Hispanic heritage parents who speak to their children in Spanish decreases. Seventy-one percent of U.S.- born second-generation Latino parents speak to their children in Spanish and fewer than half of all third- or higher-generation Latino parents do, according to the Pew Research Center.
“One of the main proponents of allowing children or creating more dual language programs is Dr. Kim Potoski, and she has found no evidence that just growing up in these bilingual settings will take away from your ability to speak English. On the contrary -- It helps you,” Anel Brandl, a professor at Florida State University who teaches Spanish to students with Hispanic heritage, said.
Mia Hernandez is a former student of Brandl’s and has a similar upbringing to Del Dago. Her dad is also from Cuba. Growing up, her parents worried that teaching her Spanish would hinder her ability to speak English, although Brandl says that recent research has disproven that.
Hernandez recently graduated from Florida State University with a minor in Spanish. Now she’s fluent in a language she barely spoke growing up.
“I feel a lot closer to my Cuban heritage now that I speak Spanish than before when I almost completely rejected it in favor of learning English so that I could fit in with my English-speaking American friends,” Hernandez said.
Just like Del Dago, learning Spanish transformed her relationships with her family members.
“I think the difference has just been getting to know my grandmother a lot more and about her life growing up in Cuba,” Hernandez said.
She emphasizes that you don’t need to speak Spanish in order to feel connected to your culture.
“I don't think that it's something that there should be any guilt or shame around not learning, but I think it's also up to us to figure out how to move forward, as Cuban Americans, deciding how we want to raise our children, and so whether we want to teach our children Spanish, we want to teach them about maybe the culture and the food,” she said.
Now, Hernandez is training to teach Spanish speakers abroad English, and Del Dago is getting his Ph.D. in art history, focusing on queer Latin artists. Both have worked to connect to their familial heritage through the power of language.