As the US Latino population booms – and with it, its economic impact – Spanish is becoming an essential tool for workers and businesses alike to get ahead.

During her first couple years in the advertising industry, Dani Herrera says colleagues asked her questions like, “Should we schedule this meeting for later in the afternoon? I know you people like to take a little siesta after lunch” and “How come you speak English so well?”

When Herrera moved from Argentina to New York City for work in her early 30s, she knew it would be a big adjustment – but she didn’t expect to be on the receiving end of micro- and macro aggressions at work for her cultural and linguistic background.

She quickly learned many of her colleagues and bosses had a set, biased and stereotypical idea of how a Latina woman should look, act and sound. “Most of the interactions made me feel underappreciated,” says Herrera, now 39. She became reticent to speak Spanish in public, let alone at work.

This kind of stigmatisation is common and often begins early in life, says Fabiana Meléndez Ruiz, founder and CEO of Refuerzo Collaborative, a Latina-owned communications agency. “The memory that really sticks out to me is being told by my middle school teachers that I wasn’t allowed to speak in Spanish with my peers out of fear that those who weren’t bilingual would feel ‘left out’.”

Instead, she was the one who felt excluded. “English is my second language – something you wouldn’t know now,” says Meléndez Ruiz. “But when I was learning English, and could only depend on Spanish, I was left out of a lot of conversations, sometimes on purpose, because I didn’t understand.” Language was one of the few ties she had left to her native Venezuela, so she also felt her connection to her culture was diminished – even dismissed entirely.

While Latino communities and native Spanish speakers have long experienced discrimination, both personally and professionally, experts say that is changing, due in part to a recent mindset shift, particularly in the business world. As Latinos represent nearly three-quarters of the growth of the US labour force since 2010 – and their spending power rockets into the trillions – employers are beginning to see Spanish fluency, especially native fluency, as an increasingly desirable, even essential, quality.

“The ability to connect in a natural way to such a large portion of the world’s population is incredibly valuable,” says David Rice, an HR expert at People Managing People, a publication and community space for HR and people leaders. “It significantly expands what is possible for a person to work on as businesses increasingly think more global.”

Dani Herrera, 39, used to fear speaking Spanish in public, let alone the workplace (Credit: Courtesy of Dani Herrera)

Dani Herrera, 39, used to fear speaking Spanish in public, let alone the workplace (Credit: Courtesy of Dani Herrera)

Follow the money“The US is home to more than 62 million Latinos, who represent almost a fifth of the country,” says Barbara Gomez-Aguinaga, the associate director of the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (SLEI) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

This segment of the population is having a major economic impact that continues to grow. For one, they have immense spending power – according to Gomez-Aguinaga’s research, US Latinos have an economic output of $2.8tn (£2.3tn). This group also owns nearly five million businesses across the country, which collectively generate more than $800bn (£655bn) in annual revenue. Latino entrepreneurs are quickly becoming the fastest growing segment of the US business population and a prominent source of economic activity for their communities and the US economy at large.

Their success is due in no small part to their bilingualism, says Gomez-Aguinaga. “Through our annual surveys, we have found that while the first language of most Latino entrepreneurs is Spanish, the vast majority of them are proficient in English and Spanish – and conduct businesses in both languages.”

This heightened presence of Latinos both in the workforce and as business owners is driving “increased awareness” of the need for Spanish fluency, says Carla Zanoni, 49, an Argentine-American immigrant now living in New York, whose first language is Spanish. Native fluency, says Zanoni, pictured at top, is especially valuable, as it enables people to tap into and understand “the incredible nuance and diversity amongst the US Latino population”.

Herrera says her heritage and life experiences have given her the opportunity to approach the work she does from an international and multicultural lens – which she’s found to be a sought-after skill. “Having lived, worked and collaborated with Latin America, I can bring nuanced and informed points of view, opinions and resources to the conversation.”

Meléndez Ruiz, too, has seen these benefits extend to her work as an entrepreneur. “My agency stands out because we navigate between worlds and are able to create integrated campaigns and pitch in Spanish, something that is actually not very common,” she explains. “I would say that we get many of our new business inquiries because of our ability to execute bilingual campaigns.”

Fabiana Meléndez Ruiz says she often felt left out or even dismissed as a Spanish speaker (Credit: Ashley Hahn)

Fabiana Meléndez Ruiz says she often felt left out or even dismissed as a Spanish speaker (Credit: Ashley Hahn)

The inclusion effect

Zanoni, who works as journalist, and recently held a senior role at TED Conferences, notes native fluency is helpful not only to her personally, but also has the potential to change work culture across industries by creating inclusive environments. “This extends beyond my ability to connect with other Latino colleagues,” she says. “It sends a signal that an organisation is willing to prioritise a truly diverse workplace.”

Herrera, too, has seen a positive change in her work environment in recent years, compared to her initial experience after moving to New York. Since moving into DEI consulting, “my heritage, lived experiences, bilingualism, international experience, global network and point of view as a Latina immigrant quickly became an advantage”.

She says other DEI professionals understand she brings a different and nuanced point of view – and company leaders now see her international experience as an asset. Indeed, inclusive organisations have advantages in business across profitability as well as worker satisfaction and turnover.

Compared to her middle-school years where she had to hide her Spanish tongue, Meléndez Ruiz has found that her cultural ties now confer a unique advantage. “I used to dislike living in between worlds. I think this is a feeling that can be felt by a lot of immigrants or children of immigrants. I never felt American enough or Venezuelan enough,” she adds. “Eventually, I realised that that was my power: living in the in-betweens.”

Ultimately, say experts, the booming US Latino population and growing numbers of Spanish speakers mean more employers will seek out applicants with Spanish skills in nearly every profession.

Still, Zanoni says there is always room for improvement with employers doing more work to understand diversity. “We come from broad and vast cultures and lived experiences that are united by one language, with different dialects, accents, vocabulary and we should be treated as a diverse pool of talent … Employers who can celebrate that nuance will thrive as the US Latino population continues to grow and drive business decisions.”

And the effects manifest beyond the business bottom line. For Herrera, receiving validation and support for her heritage in her workplace has made her feel a significant sense of belonging. She says, “I unapologetically speak Spanish in public now.”

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