Born in the USA, and with the Latino Accent to Prove It

* This is the first of a three-part series exploring Latino dialects.

Allison Ramírez was born in Miami, and so was her accent. Though she always tells people she’s American they refuse to accept that as an answer to the question “Where are you from?”

“I’ve been here my whole life and I speak English better than Spanish,” said Ramírez, who is currently in graduate school in Savannah, Georgia and whose mother is Cuban and father is Colombian. “It’s like you can’t be from [the U.S.] if you have dark hair and dark eyes and you don’t sound like everyone else.”

It’s like you can’t be from [the U.S.] if you have dark hair and dark eyes and you don’t sound like everyone else.

— Allison Ramírez, who was born in Miami

Like Ramírez, American-born residents who live in longstanding Hispanic communities in areas such as Miami, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and cities throughout Texas and the southwest are rarely allowed to say they are American without also explaining that their ancestors were born in Latin America. Though many rarely speak Spanish as their primary language, their English is infused with the sounds, rhythms and grammar structure of Spanish.

The resulting English dialect, recognizable by the accent, can carry stigma outside of these Hispanic enclaves. Mainstream America has mistaken these accents for being a sign of recent immigration and the grammar as an indication of a poor command of English. Linguists disagree and are hoping that a current groundbreaking study in North Carolina may help break some of these associations.

“We need to educate the schools and society about what’s happening with the language, where it may be expected to go and to alleviate the Spanish-is-a-threat mentality,” said Walt Wolfram, who is directing the North Carolina study.

In the thick of the tension that has developed between a Hispanic immigration boom and anti-immigration laws, academics in North Carolina are studying for the first time how a dialect develops in the U.S.

“The amazing thing is so much comes down to personal identity,” said Jeffrey Reaser, a professor at North Carolina State University who is also involved in the research. “Brothers and sisters may sound very different from one another depending on who they identify with.”

Reaser points to one family in which he and his team have found one sibling who has adopted a southern drawl while another child in the same family speaks with a distinctly Spanish cadence and intonation.

That language is a function of so much more than environment is a concept that mainstream America hasn’t caught onto – and will be a critical concept to adapt for the accents to be embraced.

“The general public doesn’t understand these kids are speaking perfectly – just another dialect,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College. “The reason that people don’t just stop talking that way is because they are countering that they have an identity. They are saying, ‘I want to be like the people I love. I don’t want to sound like the newscaster on TV. I want to sound like my people.’”

On the other hand, Fought also points out, outside of the comfort of their hometowns many Latinos ditch their accents to sound more like those peers.

Ramírez says she is one of the few people she knows that plans to live outside of Miami and she is now working on masking her accent.

To do that, she has to work on the pronunciation of things such as the letter “L.” In English, the “L”  sound in “fill” and in “like” are different. But in Spanish -- and in Miami -- there is only one way to pronounce “L,” according to linguist Phillip Carter who is working on conducting an extensive study of the contact between Spanish and English in Miami.

“I think sometimes people judge you as less smart or less cultured when you have the accent,” Ramírez said, adding that when she is home or talking with friends the accent ramps up. “For me, it’s not just leaving the accent and the way of speaking behind but also it’s about finding a way to be attached to a culture but not letting it define you.”