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Julian Castro's Spanish Skills: Does It Matter That The Latino Mayor 'Doesn't Really Speak' Español?

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JULIAN CASTRO SPANISH
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro gives the keynote address on stage during day one of the Democratic National Convention on September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) | Getty Images

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro received a lot of praise following his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday. But he also sparked some criticism, particularly about his Spanish speaking skills.

While the Mexican-American mayor has admitted he "doesn't really speak Spanish," he did utter one phrase in Spanish during his DNC keynote address: “Que Dios los bendiga," meaning "May God bless you." The Daily Caller criticized Castro's use of a language he does not fully know, writing he "played up his Mexican heritage by speaking a few lines in Spanish."

The harsh critique of a Latino politician exploiting his roots by speaking Spanish -- what many believe to be a required language for Hispanics -- alludes to an ongoing debate in the Latino community: Is a Latino really Latino if they don't speak Spanish?

For Castro, who was born and raised in San Antonio, learning English, and not Spanish, growing up is not particularly unusual. Though his mother, Rosie Castro, taught herself to read and write in Spanish, she rarely spoke the language at home with Castro and his twin brother Joaquin, opting for English instead. In school, Castro studied Latin and Japanese.

As Gawker pointed out, The Daily Caller also took it a step further and compared Castro's speaking ability to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

A number of news outlets have suggested that Julian Castro represents the Democrats’ answer to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Castro, is Hispanic and spoke at his party’s national convention.

Unlike Castro, however, Rubio is fluent in Spanish, as evidenced by an interview he gave Telemundo last year.

While the comparison is an obvious one, the implication about Castro's lack of speaking skills is a bit overblown. According to the same The New York Times magazine's 2010 profile story of Castro in which he admitted he didn't really speak the language, Castro was also receiving Spanish tutoring at the time (whether he obtained fluency is unknown).

Similarly, The Guardian knocked anyone who refers to Castro as a "Latino politician," writing:

Though Julian Castro, like his brother, is grounded in the Hispanic community, to define him exclusively as a Latino politician would be to make a big mistake. For a start, he doesn't even speak fluent Spanish.

Although the hotly debated conception that all Latinos must speak Spanish in order to be considered Latino is not a new one, its holding would discount millions of U.S. Latinos.

According to U.S. Census data, 76 percent of Hispanics, ages 5 and older, spoke Spanish at home in 2009. Many immigrants may speak Spanish, but after settling in the U.S., their descendants tend to lose the native language by the third generation.

“People may check ‘Hispanic’ on the census, but in San Antonio they are Tejanos, Texans of Mexican ancestry,” Arturo Madrid, a professor of humanities at Trinity University in Castro's hometown, told The New York Times magazine.

“This is the model of what America will look like in other cities. English will be the dominant language," he continued. "Young Mexican-Americans may display minor symbols of their ethnicity — ‘I eat spaghetti, therefore I’m Italian,’ that sort of thing — but their kids will consider themselves American."

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