Not all Accents are Equal in Spanish-Language Media

This is the third of a three-part series exploring Latino dialects. In the first part, experts discuss how second generation Latinos in the U.S. are forming their own accents and dialects. The second part is how educators are struggle to teach students whose English is infused with Spanish. 

Lorena Estrada is from Miami. Her mother, originally from Greece, was raised in Venezuela and her father is Nicaraguan. Estrada first spoke Spanish and then Greek before learning English – which she spoke with a Miami accent.

With an international pedigree and strong family ties, it was hard for Estrada to shake the accents and speech patterns found in Miami, but when she realized she wanted to be a television news anchor she knew she had to.

“I did have someone early on in my first internship … say you’ve got to be neutral. You can’t be biased as a reporter,” Estrada said. And that meant concealing her accent so that regardless of where she was reporting audiences would be able to relate to her.

Estrada is not alone. Latinos in media have to disguise their accents. In both English and Spanish media markets, neutral accents are preferred.

The result is a “standardized” way of speaking. The impact of that, particularly in Spanish-language stations, troubles some who say that Spanish from certain countries is gaining in prestige, while accents and idioms from others are being marginalized.

I make sure I continue to speak and hold onto and cherish my cultures but it goes beyond the accent. The way I grew up and lifestyle goes into it, too.

— Lorena Estrada

“By having media representations of just one particular way of speaking, it does elevate that way of speaking and portray it as the norm,” said Jennifer Leeman, a professor at George Mason University, who specializes in Spanish in the U.S. But what is considered "standard" is not necessarily based on the population of people from any particular country, she added. “I would argue that ideas about standard language and correctness are tied up with issues of race and class.”

For some, a standardized accent is less about politics and more about viewership. It even applies in the Spanish-language news market.

When James McNamara headed Telemundo, the network launched an initiative to coach actors, regardless of their origins, to speak in a nondescript Spanish that made them sound more like Mexican television news anchors, according to reports.

The move was an “Americanization” of telenovelas, he had told the Washington Post in an interview and was one small way they hoped would chip away at Univision’s dominance over Latino viewership.

Not everyone is a supporter of standardization in Latino media, however.

Claudia Parodi, a professor at UCLA, recalled watching movie in Mexico about the Salvadoran revolution. The actors were Mexican and speaking Mexican-Spanish.

“It really bothered me. That’s not how they’d really talk,” she said. “At unconscious level people will pick up on that and they won’t be able to identify.”

But for people actively losing their accents, they maintain that the accent is not what makes a Latino.

“I make sure I continue to speak and hold onto and cherish my cultures but it goes beyond the accent,” said Estrada, who used to record herself to hear her accent and learn how to, for example, pronounce “salmon” without the “l”. “The way I grew up and lifestyle goes into it, too.”