I was in first grade when we moved back to the Valley. This was the 1980s. Everyone spoke Spanish but the schools fought a losing battle of "English-only!" In elementary school, children were shamed, scolded, and spanked for speaking Spanish. I was very invested in being a Good Student, so I quickly got with the program. I resisted my grandparents' efforts to teach me Spanish at home, because Spanish was for illiterate hooligans who'd never amount to anything.
This is what racism does: vilifies all things native, turns the child against her family, uses lateral violence to eradicate the culture. Schools are still trying to smash down native languages. Just last week I read about a principal in Hempstead, TX, who tried to make her middle school English-only. Fortunately, enough students and their families were outraged that the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund got involved. Last year in Wisconsin, a Menominee girl was suspended from her school's basketball team because she had been speaking Menominee in class.
If you're writing a Latin@ character, think about where and when they grew up, and how authority responded to their native language. Was Spanish encouraged, nurtured, privileged, or was it scorned and silenced, or was it fused with other languages, and if so, to what benefit and disadvantages of the character? Is your character a native speaker or a heritage speaker? Are they fluent or working with incomplete acquisition?
Immersed as I was in the language, I learned Spanish rather against my will. I am a heritage speaker with woefully incomplete acquisition. My elders spoke Spanish to me, and I'd reply in English. We mostly understood each other, but were sheepish enough about our respective accents not to push the convos into one language or the other. (To this day, my mother-in-law speaks to me in Spanish and I reply in English.) Oddly enough, I could read in Spanish, unlike many of my Spanish-speaking friends.
When I moved to Iowa, I seized the opportunity to take Spanish classes where no one could judge my atrocious accent. And I realized something:
There are many Spanishes, just as there are many Englishes. And each variant is legitimate and fruitful.
If you wish to write a convincing Latin@ character, you need to know what form of Spanish they speak. Textbook Spanish will only get you so far. For example, in Spanish there are five forms of "you" (intimate singular, formal singular, intimate plural, formal plural, etc). Not all Hispanics use all forms. For example, Mexicans do not use the vos/vosotros forms but the tú/usted/ustedes forms.
Then there are dialects. I grew up hearing the word rentar, meaning to rent/lease something, used all the time. In "proper" Spanish, the term is alquilar. My college teachers had no experience with Texican Spanglish, but fortunately they didn't try to "fix" what I'd inherited, only offered the textbook versions as a better way to communicate with my classmates.
Things get further complicated in translation. Pan dulce can be literally translated as "sweet bread", but "sweet breads" are something VERY different in English.
As in English, there are different registers for different degrees of formality. One speaks differently with one's childhood friends than with one's parents, and differently yet with one's boss or a state representative. This is code-switching.
Perhaps the most obvious aspect of code-switching is knowing how and when to use slang. My college instructors were sometimes horrified by my slang, which they found lowbrow and "rough." Native speakers are often inured to the literal meaning of words and underestimate their shock value. For example, English seems violent to me, with admonitions to "hit this key" or "kill the program" or "axe this section." Likewise, my casual "chinga this" and "chinga that" might startle folks who have to look up the term. If I were speaking to my child's teacher in Spanish, I'd definitely scale back the slang and avoid cursing.
Just as one finds different slang in different regions of the States, different Hispanic groups have distinct forms of slang. On tumblr, a reader reblogged a link to my first installment of this series and added, "If I read a book and you tell me the character is Puerto Rican, I’m gonna get excited cause fuck yea, Boriken baby! But if said character is clearly using Mexican words/slang, I’m done with you. Think of it as writing a British character but instead if using British slang, you use American cause you can’t bothered to learn the difference."
I do think there are times when an author can choose to mix things up—for example, when depicting mixed-heritage characters or communities. But such conflations must be conscious decisions, even in a speculative fiction context. When I was worldbuilding for my novels set in the fictional bordertown of Exile, I decided that my foul-mouthed but sympathetic Spanish-speaking characters would not rely on sexist or homophobic insults. This meant I had to depart from the standard cussing I heard in my childhood. After researching different regions' uses of profanity, I chose some creative turns of phrase more common to Spain than Mexico. I'm prepared for readers to question that choice.
Something harder for me to explain is how one's accent may change to suit register. There's a…sing-songy quality that I slip into when speaking with my Spanish-speaking family. Even if I'm speaking in English, the cadence of my speech will change to mimic the rhythms of our Spanish. This rhythm tends to be overdone on tv. Shows that don't normally feature Spanish-speakers caricaturize the accents—how many times have you heard that guttural "ese" to indicate Latinidad? I've heard the sing-iness badly done on The Walking Dead and X-Files and (sometimes) Sons of Anarchy. I've heard it well done on Grimm. I don't have any tips for reproducing the musicality of Latin@ accents to the page. I suspect if you're fluent, it comes naturally, and if you're not, you shouldn't try it.
If you don't speak Spanish and your characters do, you absolutely need a fluent Spanish speaker to beta read your story. What's more, you need a reader familiar with your character's particular dialect. If you don't have a real person who can do this for you, you are not equipped to write the story.
Yes, there are tools like Google translate. I use that one a lot. But I use it as a reverse look-up. As a heritage speaker, I already know more or less what I want and I'm merely checking the spelling or verifying conjugation. I recognize my characters' dialect, so I know which options to use. I also rely on my husband, who speaks better Spanish than I do, and we will ask our native speaker relatives when we're in doubt. Moreover, I mostly write contemporary characters who talk like I do or like people I heard when I was growing up.
If I were writing something historical, I'd rely more on book research (primary resources) to approximate the language of the time period. Geographical and class differences aside, Porfirio Diaz spoke different Spanish than Frida Kahlo, who spoke different Spanish than Enrique Peña Nieto, the current Mexican president. I'd want a native speaker to review my manuscript because, even if they weren't an expert in the time period I was writing about, they'd be better attuned to anachronisms than I am. If I were writing something futuristic, I'd want to discuss my ideas about language progression and fusion possibilities with native speakers.
As for rendering the words on the page, I tend not to use italics when my characters talk or think in Spanish. The general rule has been that we italicize foreign words. A word is no longer considered foreign if you can find it in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary.
But more important, Spanish is not a foreign language to me or my characters, so italics bring undue attention to everyday words. I end up emphasizing the words when they should be part of the flow. If it's an unusual word to me, or could be confused with an English word spelled the same way, then I'll make an exception and use italics. There's a good two-part exploration of this question at the Ploughshares blog.
Likewise, I don't translate the Spanish words I choose to use, especially not in dialog. We only use that sort of repetition when we're consciously trying to accommodate for language differences, as when we're teaching a child a new language. I am trying to depict, authentically, my characters. I'm not teaching Spanish. When I was growing up, I read plenty of books with French, Latin, and Greek sprinkled throughout the text, with the unwritten understanding that an educated person would know multiple languages or be able to figure it out.
Readers don't need to be spoonfed. If a non-Spanish-speaking reader can't cope with a little ambiguity, they can look up the unfamiliar phrase. It's easier than ever. Besides, it won't hurt them to have a fleeting awareness of what it's like to be on the outside, listening in.