How Spanish fluency became a competitive business advantage

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.”