16. ‘Lo latino’ in Barcelona: Young people, linguistic styles and identities

This post is also available in: Catalan

Víctor Corona
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, ASLAN-ICAR


I arrived in Barcelona in 2004 not to do a PhD but to earn a living, as many other Latin Americans do. I discovered that there was another language apart from Spanish. The curiosity about and interest in languages that I have always had helped a great deal in drawing me to Catalan. I immediately noticed how Latin Americans in Barcelona occupied a space similar to that of Latin Americans in the United States, and this caught my attention. I found that the young people who I saw in the park spoke more like Spaniards than they did like people from Latin America. At that time, the media was very alarmed about young people of this origin. There was a great fear about failure at school, violence and marginalization.

In 2005, I started a PhD in language teaching on a part-time basis, combining my studies with other jobs. I started to undertake ethnographic research with a group of young people who had quit their studies and who met up in the park: they called themselves “latinos“. Through participant observation, I lived alongside them for a period of eight months. My study continued at the school that they had attended. Through this research in various social-interaction spaces—for example, the school, parks and discos—I put together a corpus of data based on interviews and discussion groups in which these young people reflected on the role of languages and linguistic varieties of Spanish in the construction of a “Latin” identity (‘lo latino’) in Barcelona [1]. Some years later, once I had completed the thesis in 2012, I got back in touch with some of the young people who had taken part in the research [2]. Since then, I have explored other subjects that are less related to school—for example, the rap music made by young latinos in Barcelona [3]. It must be pointed out that this research focuses almost exclusively on males. That is, this is a subject in which the construction of masculinity is important, although I have not addressed this in depth in my work. However, it appears to be the case that Latin girls do not follow the same patterns of language socialization neither at school nor in neighborhood.

Some results

One of my first questions was whether Catalan had been the main problem faced by these young people in continuing their studies. I was surprised that, for a vast majority, Catalan was not raised as a difficulty—or at least not the most important one. Instead, they found that the way in which the school received their way of speaking Spanish was not fully appropriate. Despite being native speakers of Spanish, the school questioned the legitimacy of their varieties, positioning them as “less correct” that the Peninsular variety. Far from making the ‘latino’ boys adopt the variety promoted by the school, this hierarchy of linguistic varieties caused many of them to strengthen the more “latino” features of their speaking: a “seseante” variety that features aspirated consonants such as “s” and a lateralized “l” at the end of a word or syllable. These features are not shared by all the varieties of Spanish spoken in Latin America, but in the data collected the young Latin Americans would speak in this way regardless of their “variety”.

This variety or stylization emerged in conversations and interviews in which participants expressed their membership of “lo latino” as an identity or style. They described conflicts with the school or with the host society. This “latino” variety was constructed with words and features of the Spanish of Latin America, but also of the Peninsular Spanish of Barcelona, and even of Catalan. In fact, without the effect of the accent and the musicality of this way of speaking, it could be taken as basically Peninsula Spanish. Talking ‘latino’ was a response to certain discriminatory dynamics in the school, for instance, those qualifying their way of speaking as deficient. It was also a form of defence and protection for boys who were strongly lacking in affection and for whom the friendship group played a central role. This use of a particular form of speech as a method of resistance is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there is a long tradition of these stylization phenomena in other European contexts—for example, those studied by the British researchers Mark Sebba [4] and Ben Rampton [5]. In the context of Catalonia, Joan Pujolar’s [6] study is a reference point for all ethnographic research on young people’s speech.

But the emergence of this way of speaking does not correspond only to questions of resistance. It is also a natural consequence of young people’s socialization. Although they come from different countries, the fact of going to Barcelona, of sharing spaces such as the host school, or of living together in a given neighbourhood, made them discover that they shared a common past. It is a story of migration, but it also involves more ancient history: that of Latin America, and specifically Spain’s conquest of the Americas. It places them in opposition to Spain, as we can see in the following example:

Example 1.

546. VCR: ustedes qué_ qué piensan del catalán?| en general\|

547. RAL: es una mierda\<0>

548. ALX: que es una mierda\| tío\| no sé ni para qué vinieron_ para qué vinieron los putos españoles allá a cogernos nuestro dinero\| los odio tío\| los odio a los españoles \|


551. VCR: por qué no quieres a los españoles?|

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: por qué los odias?|

554. ALX: porque vinieron allá a jodernos nomás\| nomás para jodernos \|

hace mucho tiempo Colón-| dicen que es español o algo así\|| Colón\|

555. IGN: Colon sí\|

556. OSC: un culón de mierda|


557. ALX: vino-| se supone que fue a conquistar América \| pero fue con toda_ con toda su peña ahí\ con sus barcos\-| con sus armas a joder a América Latina\| a robarnos nuestra plata y toda esa huevada \|

Corpus 2006-2007 Support group

Participants: Alex, Raúl, Roberto, Ignacio, Oscar, Víctor


546. VCR: what_ what do you think about Catalan? | in general \ |

547. RAL: it’s shit\<0>

548. ALX: what do you mean it’s shit\| bro\| I don’t even know why they came_ why the fucking Spanish came to take our money from us\| I hate them bro\| I hate the Spanish \|


551. VCR: why don’t you like the Spanish?|

552. ALX: eh/|

553. VCR: why do you hate them?|

554. ALX: because they just came to fuck us\| just to fuck us \| a long time ago Columbus-| they say he’s Spanish or something like that\|| Columbus\|

555. IGN: Columbus yeah\|

556. OSC: what an asshole|


557. ALX: he came-| he’s supposed to have conquered\| but he went with all_ with all his crew there\ with their boats\-| with their weapons to fuck Latin America\| to steal our silver from us and all that crap \|


In the previous conversation, there were boys from Peru (Alex), Bolivia (Oscar) and Ecuador (Ignacio, Raúl and Roberto). It is interesting to see how they draw a direct relationship between Catalan and the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The negative categorization of Catalan has nothing to do with the language’s taking precedence over Spanish. For many of these young people, Catalan is as Spanish as the Spanish language in the hierarchical relationship that positions them further down.

Pierre Bourdieu claimed that, despite the fact that all languages have the same value, society values them through their speakers. At the school, I very often found a close relationship between evaluations of Latin Americans’ way of talking and the Spanish conquest. It was taken as assumed that the Peninsular variety of Spanish was better than others as a matter of colonial authority. Latin American migrants were often seen by teachers themselves as impoverished people not just in economic terms, but also in linguistic and intellectual ones.

Another recurring theme in the talks was the separation from their mothers that many of the boys felt. The Latin American diaspora in Spain is primarily female. Many women from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Bolivia came to work in Barcelona as cleaners or as carers for elderly people. These women had children, and many of them had to be apart from them for a long time. Their sons and daughters came later and were schooled in Catalonia. Mothers and separation also made for one of the most frequent themes. I could provide data from interviews, but I prefer to illustrate this argument with data that I have been collecting recently from the rap music made by young ‘latinos’ in Barcelona.

Example 2.

‘cruzar el continente pa encontrarme con mi madre

empezar de cero sin conocer a nadie           

problemas en la clase por mi acento por mi carne

esperar a que acabe esta angustia incontrolable

que suene la campana corriendo para ir a pelearme                      

y aunque tuviera miedo nunca quise ser cobarde

la vida se hace dura cuando está ausente tu padre

tener que echar palante sin que nadie te eche un cable

ya con los dieciséis yo dejé el instituto

dedicándome al chanchullo y a pequeños hurtos

con una idea clara ganas de comerme al mundo’


‘crossing the continent to meet up with my mother

starting from nothing without knowing anyone

problems in class because of my accent and my skin

waiting for the end of this uncontrollable anguish

the bell rings for me to run out and fight

and even when afraid I never wanted to be a coward

life’s hard when your dad’s not there

having to push on with no one to give you a hand

when I was sixteen I quit school

spending my time on scams and petty theft

with a clear idea and wanting to conquer the world’


Mi niñez’, (‘My childhood’) by Pielroja (Nicolás Chavarro) –rap musician from Colombia and resident of Barcelona–, 2015:



While he raises the theme of mothers, Pielroja allows us to see the conflicts that he encountered at school. He talks about his skin colour, his accent and the absence of his father as the prelude to dropping out of school. These are themes that are unfortunately present not only in the ‘rap’ music of these young people, but in the vast majority of students from this background, who came to Spain and failed to finish the minimum compulsory education.

Ten years of research

The boys who participated in my research now have children. Now when we meet, they are unable to hide a certain regret about some of the attitudes that they had when they were younger. Their relationship with the Catalan language depends to a large extent on the job that they have—if they have one—as well as on their friends and their expectations. They have also qualified their discourse on their identities. They no longer miss their countries of origin or claim a “latino” identity as they did before. They are much more concerned about finding a job [7]. The years have passed, but Barcelona’s latinos continue to exist. Moreover, on Youtube it is easy to find white Catalan boys copying latinos and drawing on traits such as those mentioned earlier. And I remember that teachers told me that the problems with these young people were that they had just arrived. And the ‘latinos’ who are at school now? Have they just arrived?

In my view, Catalan sociolinguistics should look more carefully at what is happening in the street right now. For example, by observing phenomena such as ‘rap’, we discover that new forms of speech are emerging, as well as new forms of cultural practices that tell us about the emergence of hybrid identities. What we find are young people telling us stories not about Santo Domingo or Guayaquil, but about El Raval, the Barri ‘Xino’, Canyelles and l’Hospitalet. To be sure, they do so in a ‘latino’ Spanish, but they use words and sounds that remind us that they are from Barcelona. What are these voices asking for? What are their opinions on debates that continue to seek linguistic purity in a hypothetical interdependent Catalonia? How are ways of speaking at school now evaluated? How is the subject of linguistic varieties taught in diverse classrooms? How is the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas taught? How do we train future teachers in response to this diversity?

[1] V. Corona, L. Nussbaum & V. Unamuno, ‘The emergence of new linguistic repertoires among Barcelona’s youth of Latin American origin’. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 16:2 (2012), 182-194.

[2] ‘Latino trajectories in Barcelona: a longitudinal ethnographic study of Latin American adolescents in Catalonia’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 29:1 (2016), 93-106

[3] V. Corona & S. Kelsall, ‘Latino rap in Barcelona: Diaspora, languages and identities’. Linguistics and Education (2016)

[4]London Jamaican: Language Systems in Interaction’. London: Longman, 1993.

[5] ‘Styling the other: Introduction’. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3(4) (1999), 421–427.

[6]De què vas, tio?’ Barcelona: Empúries, 1997.

[7] ‘Latino trajectories in Barcelona: a longitudinal ethnographic study of Latin American adolescents in Catalonia’, Language, Culture and Curriculum, 29:1 (2016), 93-106.