Less than two hundred years ago, it was illegal in the United States for African Americans to know how to read. Today, African Americans not only dominate the English language, but some are now venturing into other languages such as Spanish.
African Americans are becoming a new group of Spanish speakers in the United States nearing almost five hundred thousand people during Hispanic Heritage Month. Of those are Rhyan Lowery, also known as “El Compa Negro” which translates to “The Black Friend” in Spanish. He recently became the first regional Mexican music singer to be signed to Death Row Records.
As an African American man from Compton, California, Lowery believes that he is forging his own path in music as he defies the limitations usually put on artists from his neighborhood.
“I feel like more African Americans should be more encouraged to learn a foreign language, especially Spanish because everywhere you go it’s being used. I also feel like it helps us better understand our brothers and sisters who are Hispanic, because they are our brothers and sisters and we should speak their language,“ Lowery, who first began to sing the Mexican genre corridos with his childhood friends before he could even understand Spanish, said.
Those who can attest to this enthusiasm include Aiyana Fewell, a senior at Howard University who plans to use her Spanish and community development double minors to bring more visibility and opportunities to the next generation of African American students who want to take on Spanish as a second language.
“After working in customer service for about a year, I got better at being able to speak to people and help them with what they need in both languages, and it is pretty fulfilling. It’s nice because it is not from a textbook; you are interacting with people and not just reading off of a page,” Fewell said.
For over 35 years, Dr. Mercedes Tibbits has been a professor at Howard University in the department of world languages and cultures. Dr. Tibbits said that, in many cases, students develop this enthusiasm throughout their years of primary and secondary education and are ready to polish their skills for real world interactions once they arrive at college.
“They come already excited from high school…and many of them are willing and happy to continue. Some of them come to my office just to talk sometimes and practice Spanish,” Dr. Tibbits said.
“Many of my students are aiming for good professions, and this day in age, people that work in any of these places know that if they know Spanish, it is an advantage,” she continued.
Learning Spanish for the workplace is a growing need in professional environments across the nation as there are now more than forty million speakers in the United States and more than five hundred million speakers globally. The increasing popularity of Spanish as a second language is because it is not as “foreign” as it used to be with the United States currently ranking fifth for the highest number of native Spanish speakers in the world.
Among those who are proud to see the growing reach of Latin culture is Hector Mendiola, who is a Mexican songwriter that wrote “Verde es Vida” for El Compa Negro, and remembers a time when people were not as interested, and even judgemental towards people in his community.
“It’s our turn to share, and our turn to represent. And I think that is something that I can show my kids that you gotta be proud of where you come from and not be ashamed of the traditions that you have,” Mendiola said.
Influencers like Blacklingual, Bilingue Blogs and Esa Chica Bilingue are all African Americans who have learned Spanish as a second language and create content documenting their experiences using their Spanish as they travel through countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico. They also curate resources that compare Spanish words to popular slang for other African Americans who want to learn the language.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew