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Grassroots program helps Latinx community reclaim Spanish and culture

Spanish Sin Pena, which translates to "Spanish Without Shame," is an online class aimed at reconnecting Latinos to their family heritage.
Grassroots program helps Latinx community reclaim Spanish and culture
Posted at 1:24 PM, Jun 06, 2023

A grassroots program based out of Los Angeles is helping the Latino community across the country reconnect with their culture and gain confidence in their Spanish-speaking skills.

Wendy Ramirez created Spanish Sin Pena, which translates to "Spanish Without Shame." She said the idea for the online class was born from her own experience.

"It came about from my own pena (shame)," Ramirez said. "Having shame about what your heritage is, where your family is from, because it's not what the majority is."

Ramirez's family moved from El Salvador to East LA when she was young. Spanish was her first language, but when she took a Spanish class in high school and struggled to form a sentence, she realized she was losing her native language.

"When I was a teenager, I just wanted to fit in, so I would just speak English to my mom, Ramirez said.

She said her story is like many of her students who sought to disconnect from their heritage and family language to fit in.

Zach Kuiland, the son of a Mexican mother and a Puerto Rican father, said he did not feel a strong connection to his parents' culture or feel a pull to learn the language.

"A lot of the media that I was exposed to growing up was very American; I didn't really see any Hispanic, Latino families growing up in media," Kuiland said.

It was much later in life that he questioned his decision and decided to enroll in Spanish Sin Pena, "thinking maybe Spanish can be a good way to reconnect with my culture and find out what Latino means to me," Kuiland said.

He said for a long time he felt judged by many, including Hispanics who assumed he spoke Spanish based on his features, only to show disappointment when he informed them that his Spanish was very limited.

SEE MORE: What's the difference between 'Hispanic' and 'Latino'?

Jackleen Rodriguez, the co-founder of Spanish Sin Pena, describes their online course as much more than a Spanish class; she calls it a safe space for students to share their stories and gain confidence in their Spanish skills.

"Spanish Sin Pena is a community for Latinas and Latinx to come together and to really unpack and heal," Rodriguez said. "One of our students says 'Come to learn the language and stay for the cultural group therapy.'"

Rodriguez learned Spanish growing up from her family members while cooking in the kitchen, watching Spanish soap operas, and dancing to Selena Quintanilla. She admits growing up, she was embarrassed of her imperfect Spanish. She said her aunts make fun of her Spanglish, which is a hybrid language that combines English and Spanish words. Rodriguez says it's taken a long time, but she's now embracing Spanglish and is helping other students do the same.

"I think I'm confidently making mistakes," Rodriguez said. "I know my Spanish is still very Spanglish, and I'm learning to be OK with that."

For Rodriguez, it's about being able to communicate and connect with family members who only speak Spanish.

The Hispanic population is the largest minority group in the United States, and Spanish is the most common non-English language spoken in homes across the U.S., according to the United States Census Bureau.

In 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that later-generation Hispanics are less likely to encourage their children to speak Spanish. It also found the number of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home declined, while the share that only speaks English at home increased.

SEE MORE: Census data shows many Brazilians in US identify as Hispanic or Latino

"Part of the reason why we've had the issue of shame and losing the language, discrimination, assimilation, you know, even just our own education system, the way that we speak on TV, sometimes you have to pronounce all the Spanish names in English, and there is no celebration of our language in this country," Ramirez said.

There are several factors as to why people decide not to learn Spanish or pass it down to the next generation; however, many including Ramirez point to a time in U.S. history of racial reckoning.

Jonna Perrillo, an education historian, and professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, said in the 1950s and into the 1980s in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, Spanish speakers were segregated in schools and faced aggressions.

"When they spoke Spanish in school, either in the classroom or even on the playground, they were beaten," Perrillo said. "They were given demerits, they were put in closets, they were shamed and, on some occasions, they were suspended, so that's what I mean by aggressive culture. It was almost beaten out of them."

While the past will never be forgotten for some, Ramirez said in recent years she's felt a shift as students in her class seek to reclaim their roots.

"We see a trend of people really embracing every single part of their identity," Ramirez said.

A generation taking pride in their culture, heritage and language.

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