Kathya Velazquez and Daniela Luna are heritage language learners.
"I was born in Tijuana, Mexico," Velazquez said. "I lived there for about three years. And then, my parents and I moved over here to Byers, Colorado, and stayed there a couple years and then moved to Denver and I pretty much grew up there."
"Both of my parents are from Mexico," Luna said. "So, I did have a lot of Mexican culture growing up, but my mom did grow up mostly in the U.S. in Colorado. So, I feel like we did have a lot more American culture in our house rather than the Mexican culture."
Velazquez pronounces her name with a Spanish accent, and Luna does not. Every heritage language learner has their own life experience integrating multiple cultures based on where their family is originally from. Lina Reznicek-Parrado is the director of Spanish for heritage and bilingual speakers at the University of Denver.
"Heritage speakers are surrounded by their heritage language only in context of the home," Reznicek-Parrado said. "Usually they interact in the language exclusively with family members and sometimes community members, but they are exposed to the majority language otherwise. So, in our case, of course, it's English."
Spanish is the heritage language for both Luna and Velazquez. Luna says she didn't grow speaking Spanish at home.
"Hardly ever," Luna said. "Because my mom is bilingual and she was home with us the most. It was pretty much purely English. My dad only speaks Spanish, but because he works so much, the Spanish we would here was mostly like on weekends or like when he'd get home from work."
Velazquez says she spoke Spanish and English at home, but there was a lot of emphasis on speaking English.
"When I was growing up, English was the most important language to learn," Velazquez said. "You know, because we moved here from another country and, you know, the typical immigrant story of having a better future for your kids. And I think that mastering English just kind of comes with living here as an immigrant, as you have to learn it and you have to learn it well."
Velazquez recognizes that's something many families likely experience as they try to assimilate into U.S. culture. However, she chose to minor in Spanish because she's very passionate about staying connected to her roots.
"I feel like a lot of the times we feel guilty for not mastering it because we didn't grow up in that Spanish-speaking country," Velazquez said.
Luna says heritage language learners are often intimidated to learn the language because native speakers will sometimes tease them for not having perfect Spanish.
"It's almost like an identity crisis because it's almost like too Mexican to relate to Americans, but then too American to relate with Mexicans," Luna said.
Nonetheless, Velazquez says she's learned you don't need to be 100% comfortable in your heritage language to call yourself bilingual or fluent.
"I remember my professor telling me, 'There's a whole spectrum of being bilingual,'" Velazquez said. "If you understand it in some sense and you can, you know, comprehend the meaning, then you are bilingual and you do have those cultures in you and they are they are a part of you."
"A lot of people in our field believe that you can be a heritage, language learner or speaker, even if you don't speak the language at all," Reznicek-Parrado said. "Because if you have a connection to the culture that speaks your heritage language, that makes you a heritage language speaker, you might just kind of start at a different proficiency level."
All three women say heritage language learners should focus on what they can do to help them feel confident.
"I would say go for it no matter what age or like where you're at with it, because I feel like it's so worth it and it helps you be in touch with your heritage," Luna said.
"Really see that there's a whole lot of value in your own experiences as a heritage language learner," Reznicek-Parrado said. "Always think about your strengths because you have strengths as the heritage language speaker. You just don't know it because you haven't been told. You've always been told how different you are, right?"
The key is to let go of your insecurities and freely allow yourself to connect to your heritage and with those around you who can relate.