I Only Look Like I Speak Spanish: Interviews with Monolingual RGV Residents

Words by Jacob La Follette
Edited by Freddy Jimenez, Abigail Vela, Josue Rawmirez


The loss of a native tongue is both a common occurance and an accepted factor for immigrants and their children. The “three generation rule,” which states a language can be lost after three generations live in the United States, has been shortened to two for some families. Many factors are at fault when building up an individual linguistic identity, such as forced societal integration or present cultural changes. Although this is the case for the majority of the U.S., the Rio Grande Valley remains a mainly bilingual area, with 79% of the population being able to speak both English and Spanish.

It’s typical for a region like this to have strong cultural cross pollination; most of the region is within miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Washeterias and taquerias are parallel to the streets as much as fast food chains and other American staples. Spanish flourishes as much as English depending on where you are.

Although this may be, about 20% of Valley residents are monolingual. English is all they speak, and it’s common to hear the phrase “I can understand Spanish, but I can’t speak it” uttered. This is not the case just for Winter Texans and other people visiting, but for people who’ve lived here their whole lives as well.

The “three generation rule” states a language can be lost in assimilation after three generations.

I interviewed a variety of Valley residents who fit that monolingual criteria: they only speak English, they’re all born and raised in the RGV, and they identify as ethnically Hispanic. I wanted to get their perspective towards why they, and about a fifth of the Valley, don’t know Spanish fluently. Is it because they just never needed to learn it or because they actively refused to learn it?

According to them, it’s mostly the former.

Frankie M. Ruiz, a 23 year old Brownsville resident, responded bluntly. “Simply put, I was never taught it,” they said. “I think my parents were the types of Latinos who truly believed that the right way to be grateful to live in this country was to assimilate completely. The implication I always understood from them was to reject the language entirely, and as my father would say ‘not be like those other MEXICAN-Mexicans.’

“Over the years, I almost felt ashamed of connecting to my culture, because I thought that it was the wrong thing to do. I now know that this was internalized generational trauma, but back then all I saw was a ‘need’ separation. It’s heartbreaking, really.”

Heartbreaking indeed.

Joe Bocanegra, a 42 year old San Benito resident, stated, “I was never taught to speak it, and all attempts to learn or to teach myself fizzled out. Almost all of my family speaks it, but my parents never pressed it on me to learn it.”

As they stated, it’s not a full intention to reject Spanish for these residents. The three generation rule can still apply even in a complex interspersed area, especially when Spanish is either avoided by families intentionally or avoided because of lack of importance.

Public school Spanish classes have acted as a mixed bag when teaching the language. About 25% of American students take a foreign language, and Spanish is offered throughout the U.S. Classes are meant to lay down the basics of the language, but a few of the people interviewed didn’t get much help from them either.

"...It didn’t really help," stated Alexis Hernandez, a 21 year old Mission resident. "I guess because we live in the Valley, all my Spanish teachers just assumed everyone already knew Spanish and never actually took it seriously."

Monolingual English speakers make up one fifth of the Rio Grande Valley. 

Brandon Salazar, a 28 year old Harlingen resident, was a little more positive towards Spanish class. “It helped me kind of understand what is being said in a conversation,” he stated, “but I don’t speak it at all.”

The people interviewed all expressed the language barrier molding their RGV experience, whether it’s through missed employment opportunities or even going to the grocery store.

Carlo Hinojosa, a 28 year old Mission resident, said it affects him “every day. Every time I want to go to the cheap tire shop down the street for an oil change instead of 20 bucks at Walmart auto, when I am applying for a job, just being at my last job working at a JoAnn craft store. I kind of just gave up on applying for jobs here and just want to work from home like every other IT and graphics nerd who lives here.”

Hernandez added with her hiring experience, stating, “I had an interview at a fast food place when I was in high school where the manager didn’t believe that I didn’t know Spanish, so she said something like ‘we can finish the interview in Spanish or you can leave now.'” She didn’t get the job.

Salazar’s perspective is a little different, stating that his Valley experience isn’t hindered. “Most everyone I interact with at stores or businesses speaks English fluently or at least broken but fluent enough,” he stated. “I never feel burdened by Spanish speakers, and sometimes, especially if looking for a service, I feel like I’m burdening them by not speaking their language.”

He also added that his experience became unique and enhanced even without knowing Spanish well. “We say words and phrases like ‘no mames,’ even if we don’t speak Spanish, because it’s part of our vocabulary. It’s ingrained in us. Passed down through family and friends. It is our culture.”

Salazar and everyone interviewed stated that they had a positive view of how they looked at the RGV despite not knowing Spanish very well. They also all identified politically as left-leaning, with Ruiz stating they were “pro-immigration, anti-border walls, anti-border patrol, anti-separation of families once they cross over the border; I’m pro-human rights really.”

Despite language differences everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

As shown from all the interviews and statements, everyone involved with these interviews has had unique experiences when it comes to living in the RGV. Although they may seem lost culturally and socially in certain scenarios, they’re all well adjusted to being a part of the Valley culture. No one had hateful feelings towards the Spanish barrier, just at worst fear of being left out of employment or social opportunities.


“Just from personal experience, try not to beat yourself up so hard for not knowing the language,” stated Ruiz. “Yes, it makes you feel like an outsider, and sometimes even like you haven’t completely earned your right to call yourself an RGV native, but no matter what, your experience is just as valid as any other bilingual resident here.”


Hopefully, these testimonials will help clear out some biases towards monolingual English speaking residents. They aren’t always hateful towards the language, they’re lost in the beautiful bilingual shuffle of the RGV. Language aside, try to help out next time you see someone struggling to ask for directions if you can.

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