Illustration by Olivia Hom
Spanish is gendered, as are almost half of the world’s languages, including Hindi, French, and Arabic. This means there are masculine and feminine words for objects, people, and everything else. Most importantly, in many of these languages, like Spanish, people are referred to as either masculine or feminine without a non-binary option. Groups of people are referred to in the masculine form, which some see as lacking inclusivity.
Salvadora Calonje, former World Languages Department Head and Spanish teacher, and current District Instructional Coach, introduced gender-inclusive Spanish to her Heritage Spanish 4 and AP Spanish classes last year. She developed a unit on gender-inclusive language in a joint effort with Michael Mueller, who was also teaching Heritage Spanish 4.
Calonje said, “I remember a student asked me once, ‘If I don’t identify as male or female, how would I describe myself in Spanish?’ That question made me stop to think and reflect. I was honest with the student and told them that I did not have an answer. I remember feeling at a loss because I had not thought of Spanish as an exclusive or discriminatory language until my student didn’t know how to describe themself.” She brought it up at a World Language Department meeting, and they began to discuss the multiple different options available to be more gender-inclusive in Spanish.
Calonje said, “Our goal by teaching this unit was simply to bring awareness to our students and have these discussions of sexism and discrimination within our culture and language and how they impact our present and future.”
Calonje said, “In December 2019, [Administrative Vice Principal Nicholas Muys] sent me an article that changed my perspective on language. It was about a movement led by young people in Argentina to use the letter “e” instead of the “a/o” to describe a person. That article was then included in the unit for her Spanish students. After reading and discussing the article, students wrote a short reflection about gender-inclusive language. The letter “e” has gained popularity, and is what Calonje uses and teaches in her classes.
Calonje says, “I don’t know if the “e” is the solution or if it will be permanent but at least we are having these discussions and bringing awareness to the topic and that is a huge step to bring forth change and inclusivity.”
In the unit, Mueller explained, “First, we show a few videos and articles of women and non-binary people talking about why this topic is important to them. Then, we have discussions about gender-inclusive Spanish and the perspectives on it. There is no expectation that students or other teachers will use inclusive language; it is up to them.”
A big reason why gender-inclusive Spanish has not caught on, according to Calonje, is that “people are not aware that this exists.” Mueller agreed, saying, “Before talking to Calonje about gender-inclusive Spanish at the end of last year, I had never heard of gender-inclusive language or pronouns in Spanish, only in English.”
Even for Mueller, the change has been hard. He said, “I will be honest, I did use the terms last year during and after the unit but, this school year, I unintentionally stopped using it. It’s something we have to keep in mind when speaking and it’s a big change. I hope that once I start teaching it to my students, I can use it more again.”
For Calonje’s AP students, there was a sense of being stuck in the system. She said, “It was a bit heartbreaking though that even after we spent time discussing how and why we should be more inclusive, I had to advise my students not to use inclusive language on the AP exam. I tried to communicate with the College Board to see where they stood regarding the use of inclusive language in the AP exam, but there wasn’t any mention of it anywhere on the website.
Senior Karla Campos, who was introduced to gender-inclusive language in Calonje’s AP Spanish class, said, “My initial reaction was that it seemed good because it was not discriminatory towards anyone. Usually, I don’t use it because I don’t know how the person I’m talking to feels about it, but if someone were to ask me to use it when referring to them, I would.”
Senior Miguel Castellanos discovered gender-inclusive language through the internet. He said, “I am accepting of it, but don’t use it during my daily life.”
Calonje and Mueller will be bringing their curriculum from M-A to the District on February 6th. Calonje said, “My goal is to bring awareness to our educators that this topic exists. Mr. Mueller and I will be presenting this unit to the Spanish teachers in our District in a professional development training session. I am not expecting everyone to teach it or use it, but I hope they learn about it and at least we shed some light on the topic so that our students receive the information and become aware of it.”
While change takes time, the hope is that using gender-inclusive Spanish will eventually become normalized. Calonje believes that “Slowly, we will begin to see changes to be more inclusive in our community, and I am patient. I know that as long as I am able to offer another way of looking at inclusive language in Spanish the seed is planted for my students.”