Spanish in the USA: 7 Ways the Language Has Affected U.S. History and Culture

Spanish has a long and impactful history in the United States.

In fact, Spanish speakers’ language and heritage have been impacting U.S. history and culture since before the U.S. was even a country.

Getting acquainted with the Spanish culture and dialects right in your own backyard can light a new fire under your language studies.

We’ll cover some fascinating and little-known facts about the past, present and future of Spanish in the U.S.


1. The first European language spoken on U.S. territory

During the 2016 presidential campaign, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine stirred up controversy when he stated that Spanish was the first European language spoken on U.S. territory.

But Kaine’s facts were correct.

The Spanish language first arrived in what would become the U.S. in 1513, when the explorer Juan Ponce de León came ashore in present-day Florida.

In 1565, The Spanish founded the first Europeans settlement in what is now the US: the city of St. Augustine, Florida (called “San Agustín” at the time). This settlement predated the lost British colony of Roanoke by about 20 years.

English may now be the dominant language in most of the U.S., but Spanish has been around for much longer.

2. California’s first constitution was published in English and Spanish

Until the Mexican-American war, a large part of California was Mexican territory. This means that well into the 19th century there was a huge population of Spanish speakers in the territory.

So, when California drafted its first constitution in 1849, they wrote it in both English and Spanish. They even designated an “official translator” for the job: William Edward Petty Hartnell.

In fact, the California constitution included an article requiring all official state documents to be published in both English and Spanish.

However, the state’s official bilingualism was short-lived.

In 1855, English became the official language of primary school education. And in 1879, despite spirited debate, the renewed constitution didn’t uphold Spanish language rights.

Today, nearly 30 percent of California residents speak Spanish at home and there’s still debate within the state about bilingual rights.

3. Six U.S. state names have Spanish-language origins

Given the long history of Spanish speakers in United States territory, it’s not surprising that several U.S. states adopted names derived from Spanish. A Mental Floss article identifies six states that have Spanish-derived names:

  • Arizona: Scholars aren’t clear on exactly where the name Arizona comes from. Some maintain that it’s from the Basque aritz onak (“good oak”).

Others believe that it came from the Spanish word Arizonac, which itself comes from an O’odham Native American word meaning “having a little spring.”

Still others claim that it comes from the Spanish zona árida (arid zone).

  • California: California is the name of a fictional paradise created by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo in his novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (“The Adventures of Esplandián“).
  • Colorado: Colorado is a Spanish false friend. Although it looks like the English word “colored,” it actually means “bright red.”

Spanish explorers named the Río Colorado (Colorado River) after its red waters. Later, the name Colorado was adopted for the entire territory.

  • Florida: When Juan Ponce de León landed on the shores of Florida, he noticed the area’s abundant plant life. Thus, he gave the territory the name Florida (Flowery).
  • Montana: This state name comes from the Spanish montaña (mountain) due to the state’s many mountain ranges. However, the origin of its usage is unknown.
  • Nevada: The Spanish word nevada means “snowfall” or “snowy”. It was first used as a name for the Sierra Nevada (literally, “snow-covered mountain range”) and later was applied to the whole state.

Bonus: the name Utah may have come from the word ute, which the Spanish used to refer to the region’s indigenous population.

Also, the name Texas is a Hispanicization of the Caddo Native American word teysha, which was a greeting used by indigenous communities before the arrival of the Spanish.

4. There are many different Spanish dialects throughout the U.S.

If you’ve lived or traveled in the U.S., you’ve surely noticed the many different English dialects that exist within the country. Northeastern English, for example, has totally different slang than the English in the Deep South or the Midwest.

But did you know that the same is true of Spanish in the U.S.?

The Spanish spoken across the country varies widely by region. And although recent immigration has something to do with this (for example, the prevalence of Cuban Spanish in Miami), some of these regional variations can be traced to 16th and 17th century migration patterns.

For instance, the Spanish spoken in Colorado contains certain elements that are related to the colonial-era Spanish spoken in the region.

Dialect differences in Spanish can make it challenging to understand the language when you’re still learning it.

Fortunately, many language learning tools and programs include speech audio from different regions. For example, FluentU is a language learning website and iOS and Android app that teaches Spanish using native-sourced videos featuring Spanish speakers from around the world—you’ll be able to hear the differences in dialects from Chile to Spain and everywhere in between.

The program also features interactive subtitles, letting you pause and look up words while you watch, plus a number of other tools to help you learn efficiently. 

5. Some Spanish language songs like “Despacito” have been huge hits

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard the wildly popular song “Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. “Despacito” became the most-streamed song of all time and a remix featuring Justin Bieber generated popularity in the U.S.

In May 2017, “Despacito” reached the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first Spanish-language song to do so since “Macarena” in 1995.

According to some commentators, the popularity of “Despacito” is part of (and has contributed to) a more general trend of Latin-inspired music booming in the U.S., though Latin music has arguably been a large force in U.S. popular music since the late 90’s to early 2000’s.

6. “Spanglish” is often used by second-generation Latinos

“Spanglish” refers to the mixing of English and Spanish by bilingual people. Spanglish takes many forms, such as the insertion of Spanish phrases into English speech or the use of Anglicisms or English loan-words in Spanish speech.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, nearly 60 percent of young second-generation Hispanic Americans in the United States speak Spanglish “some of the time,” and more than 25 percent speak it “most of the time.”

Although some academics might see Spanglish as a “corruption” of proper Spanish, many young Latinos are proud of Spanglish and embrace it as part of their bilingual, multicultural identity.

The New York Times published an ode to Puerto Rican Spanglish, and Latinx-run sites like Remezcla have produced content aimed specifically at Spanglish-speakers.

7. By 2050, the U.S. could have the most Spanish speakers of any country

The Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. is on the rise.

This is partially due to an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from central and south America, and partially due to the prevalence of Spanish-language education in U.S. primary and secondary schools.

As of 2015, the U.S. had 41 million native Spanish speakers, plus 11.6 million bilingual Spanish speakers. Currently, the only country with a larger Spanish-speaking population is Mexico, at 121 million.

A report from the U.S. Census office predicted that by 2050 the U.S. would have 138 million Spanish speakers, the largest population anywhere on the planet.


If you’re learning Spanish in the U.S., you’re clearly in good company! The Spanish language has a long history here and it’s certainly not going away anytime soon.

As Spanish music and culture become more prevalent in the U.S., and as the number of Spanish-speakers continues to grow, the language will become an even greater asset.

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