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No Sabo

Tom Beeman applauds the destigmatization of US Latino Spanish

One day while at work, I was speaking with one of our English teachers about Spanish, and he mentioned that he had a working ability in Spanish and, while not fluent, he considered himself a yo sabo person. While I recognized the error, I didn’t correct him. A few days later I saw a news headline about “No Sabo Kids.” Remembering what my colleague had said, I decided to read the article. Upon further discussion with my colleague, he said he knew the correct form but had been overthinking it and hadn’t realized he had made the error. Either way, thank you, Sean, for unintentionally bringing a new term to my attention and for being the inspiration for this article.

No sabo is a grammatically incorrect translation of “I don’t know” (compared with the correct form of yo sé). This mistake is common among US Latinos who either haven’t had a formal Spanish class or were raised in a household where speaking Spanish was discouraged by their parents but who have some knowledge of the language in order to communicate with grandparents, local business owners, etc.

Typically, calling someone a no sabo is a pejorative way to poke fun at Latinos who don’t speak “proper” Spanish. The worst part of this is that it is used by other Latinos as if to indicate their Latinidad is somehow diminished as a result (similar to the term pocho, used to describe Latinos whose personalities appear to be more in line with those of the White European than the Latin American). Today’s US Latino youth are not feeling shamed but are embracing no sabo as a sense of identity with the hope that linguistic ability will no longer be used as a measuring stick for cultural identity.

One common misconception about Latinos is that they are a homogenous group all with similar identities. However, as discussed in Voces: Latino Students on Life in the United States (Carreira and Beeman, 2104), they have diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. There are over 20 Spanish-speaking countries in the world, including the US, the dominant cultures of which have been greatly influenced by European colonists, transported African slaves, and Indigenous peoples. In many of these countries, Spanish is not the only language spoken—some of these countries have adopted one or more Indigenous languages as official languages in addition to Spanish. And while Spanish is prominently spoken in these countries, there are different varieties, similar to English. Just like many other languages, the Spanish spoken in Spain is different from that of the Americas, and there are various dialects and varieties of Spanish among countries in the Americas. Even the Spanish spoken in the southwestern US is different from that spoken in Florida—or even northwestern Mexico, despite the geographical proximity and constant contact. To understand the no sabo term and generation, it’s important to first lay out some linguistic background on this Spanish variation.

According to Aspectos lingüísticos del español en Los Ángeles (Silva-Corvalán, 2001), the Spanish spoken in Southern California (which has come to be known as Español Vernacular de Los Ángeles, or EVLA) is a nonstandard oral variety based on Mexican Spanish. Some features of EVLA include the following: regularization of gender (such as all words ending in -a taking on feminine form, e.g., el problema ? la problema), regularization of verbal forms, loss of stem change and of irregular preterit by following regular verbal paradigms, and use of Spanglish (hybrid of English words changed to fit Spanish phonology)—hence why no sé has become no sabo. Although on the surface this appears to be due to lack of knowledge of Spanish, linguistically speaking it isn’t. Speakers of this dialect have a working knowledge of the rules of the language in that they know that first-person singular verbs remove the infinitive case marking and replace it with an -o. It is not surprising they have difficulty with the yo sé form, as it is irregular, similar to saying “gooses” in English as opposed to “geese.”

The following quote from a recent NPR publication provides an example of no sabo:
“After Mexico’s men’s soccer team won the Gold Cup this month, an ESPN Deportes reporter in Inglewood, Calif., approached fans dressed in Mexico’s green jersey. He started interviewing a little boy who was wearing one, too, and introduced him in Spanish by saying, ‘Here is the future of Mexico. Come here, kid.’ The boy seemed confused, and the studio anchors commented that he doesn’t understand. It’s a generation that no longer speaks Spanish, they said. A Twitter post of the video went viral, saying, raise your kids not to be yo no sabo…”

The boy was interviewed in Spanish but appeared to not understand the reporter when asked his name. The boy probably comes from a household in which his parents encourage him to speak English and are not teaching him Spanish. While this practice is less common today, since there has been an increased value placed on bilingualism, this was not always the case. Parents who migrated to the US as youths in the 1970s and 1980s felt pressured to assimilate into the US culture, which often resulted in the loss of their native language (Rivera Mercado, 2023).
Parents were judged for their accents and often struggled academically because as children they weren’t scholastically fluent in either language. Rather than deal with the criticism from family or from teachers, college professors particularly, for not being proficient enough, they opted to drop Spanish altogether in favor of English.

I spoke with the parent of one such student, and she said she was called a pocha growing up. Kids would tease her for not being fluent in Spanish (she grew up in a household where English was the primary language and Spanish was only used to communicate with relatives in Mexico), and she focused her efforts on learning proper English and neglected her Spanish. It was only as an adult that she became more motivated to improve her Spanish so she could communicate better with the Spanish-speaking members of her church. Her son feels embarrassed that he grew up knowing very little Spanish and ended up signing more than speaking because his relatives have a hard time understanding what he is saying. Of course, being family, they are very forgiving and understanding and are not likely to poke fun at him. A former student of mine said they would misconjugate verbs and, because of mistakes and embarrassment, they got to a point where they stopped trying. However, now that they are in college and studying Spanish more formally, their Spanish is improving, and they’re feeling more confident in their abilities and more willing to try to speak it.

Since the late 1990s, bilingualism has become increasingly accepted and even encouraged as the population of Spanish-speaking immigrants has increased. With this surge has come a battle over what is considered bilingual and what is considered acceptable Spanish. This divide has become especially prominent within the Latino community, as those who speak a more formal, scholastic form of Spanish frown upon speakers of other versions of Spanish, making them feel that their Latinidad is diminished and resulting in calling people names such as pocho and no sabo. Rather than allowing this to discourage them, they are using their resiliency to embrace it and are proud to call themselves no sabo kids or the no sabo generation. As a result of this, these students consider themselves to be generation 1.5 and feel a sense of loss and confusion, as they are ni de aqui ni de allí (neither from here nor there).

Based on (nonscientific) research I’ve seen online and from the interviews I’ve conducted, there seems to be a common theme that heritage language speakers don’t think of their Spanish as being that bad until they travel to a Spanish-speaking country outside the US. Even in an episode of the 1970s bilingual sitcom ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, the character of Joe, a 17-year-old high school student in Miami, tells his mom that despite being made fun of by his family, he speaks Spanish better than anyone else at his school. It is often through interactions with Spanish speakers in other countries that people’s linguistic insecurities start to develop. According to a piece written by Jacqueline Delgadillo, she hadn’t questioned her level of fluency in Spanish until a taxi driver in Mexico asked her, “Where are you really from? You sound like a gringa.” But Latinos are no longer being shamed by being called no sabo. They are using that term as a means of empowering themselves and of self-identity.

Latino youth today are proud of being bilingual, and despite their Spanish not being perfect, they are still able to effectively communicate. Isn’t that the goal we tell our nonnative speakers? That while fluency is great, communicative competence is the objective? To them, being no sabo kids means identifying themselves as US Latinos as opposed to Latinos from elsewhere. According to Telemundo, #nosabo has 647.6 million views and #nosabokids has 398.5 million views. The online store Hija de Tu Madre identifies itself as being pro-no sabo and sells merchandise specifically geared toward this population of Latinos. A family of Latino youth from Southern California went so far as to create a card game called Yo Sabo that is for sale online. In a recent podcast, they said they created the game because they were driving down the freeway to where the Goodyear Blimp is moored and they couldn’t remember the word for blimp in Spanish. They realized that because they are mainly around English speakers, their Spanish isn’t that great, and that this would be a fun way to reconnect with the language of their heritage.

As language educators, we need to also be cognizant of the uniqueness of these speakers. My colleague and fellow Spanish teacher Kate Hallock discusses this issue in her classes. She talks about how harmful this is to people who lack either practice or education in language. She reminds them that they should be respectful to all people who are learning a language. As my other colleague and Spanish teacher Brian LaMay commented, we all talk much more informally at home. We say things like “I ain’t got no beer in the fridge,” so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this occurs in Spanish as well.

While many college professors are aware of the difference between a native speaker and a heritage language learner, many K–12 educators are not. A native speaker is someone who was born in a Spanish-speaking country where they grew up speaking Spanish as their first language and studying Spanish in school as their language arts course. A heritage language learner is someone who was born in the US and grew up either in a bilingual household or a household that was English dominant. They speak just enough Spanish to be able to communicate with non-English-speaking relatives. We need to avoid judging them because they don’t speak academic Spanish. Instead, we need to understand how they speak and why, and by doing so we can then help them learn to understand the mistakes they are making, why they are making them, and how to correct them so they can succeed in an academic course.
In a recent interview with NBC News, the co-founder of the website Spanish Sin Penas Jackie Rodríguez said, “I love Spanglish and I’m going to speak it for life and I’m not ashamed about that. A language isn’t going to make me any less Latina. It’s in my blood. It’s in my hips. It’s in my sazón (seasoning) when I’m cooking.” In that same article, Yo Sabo game co-founder Carlos Torres was quoted as saying, “Language is so fluid. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how little you know—we’re all in this really together, just learning… We need to stop being our harshest critics.” That is the motivation for the #nosabo/#yosabo movement. Rather than being ashamed that their Spanish isn’t perfect or academic, they are proud of their linguistic skills. To them, this is their version of Spanish, no different than acceptable variations from different Spanish-speaking countries that already exist. So, the next time you come in contact with a no sabo Latino, embrace them and the way they speak. They are no less Latino, just as those who speak varieties of US English are no less American.

Carreira, M. M., and Beeman, T. (2014). Voces: Latino Students on Life in the United States. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Delgadillo, J. (2002). “We’re Redefining What It Means to Be a ‘No Sabo’ Kid.” Refinery29.
Flores, E., and Brown, M. (2023). “The ‘No Sabo Kids’ Are Pushing Back on Spanish-Language Shaming.” NBC News.
Hallock, K. (2023). Personal interview. Sept. 22.
Jóvenes Latinos Tienen Dificultad Con El Idioma (2023). Noticias Telemundo.
La Familia Podcast (2023). “La Familia x You Sabo the Game!” YouTube.
LaMay, B. (2023). Personal interview. Sept. 26.
Martinez, A. (2023). “What It Means to Be ‘No Sabo.’” National Public Radio.
Rivera Mercado, A. (2023). “‘No Sabo’ Is a Slur, Fight Me On It.” Luz Media.
Schwanz, A. (2023). Personal interview. Sept. 26.
Schwanz, J. (2023). Personal interview. Sept. 26.
Soto, E. (2023). Personal interview. Sept. 26.
Silva-Corvalán, C. (2001). Aspectos lingüísticos del español en Los Ángeles. Centro Virtual Cervantes, 2001–2002.

Tom Beeman is a high school Spanish teacher at the California Virtual Academies, where he has also been involved with Advanced Placement and dual enrollment programs. He has been active in state and national language advocacy and is co-author of the book Voces: Latino Students on Life in the United States.

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