The Sofía Vergara Controversy: Is a Spanish Accent Actually Stupid?

Graphic design in collage style that shows a female mouth speaking into microphones on a background with the words: linguistic discrimination, stereotypes, accent, identity
Luz Media

Colombian actress Sofía Vergara has had the spotlight on her recently due to the success of Netflix's latest true crime series "Griselda,” where she plays the titular role of Griselda Blanco. The series was the top show on the Netflix Global Top 10 list for three consecutive weeks since its debut.

This marks a big accomplishment for Vergara because it’s the first role she plays outside the realm of comedy after working on the sitcom “Modern Family” for over 10 years, which catapulted her to fame. It also made her one of the highest-paid actresses in the industry, so she’s had a very successful career so far.

However, she recently stirred up some controversy with some comments she made about her Spanish accent and how she feels it limited her career. Her comments, however, reflect a bigger issue–the belief that having an accent somehow means you’re occupying a lesser societal status.

Racism and the belief that if you’re in the United States, you should speak English at all times has fueled the idea that if you speak with a Spanish-language accent, you are less educated, less capable, less intelligent, and less skilled.

This harmful stereotype has been bolstered by the media and society at large so relentlessly that many bilingual Spanish/English speakers buy into it without even realizing it. It’s also important to note that not all accents are discriminated against - this harmful stereotype doesn’t rear its ugly head in media when it comes to accents deemed respectable like a British, French, or Italian accent.

Sofía Vergara’s Comments on Her Bilingual Spanish/English Accent

Back in January, Sofía Vergara went viral for clapping back at Spanish interviewer Pablo Motos on the show “El Hormiguero” for seemingly criticizing her English pronunciation. They were talking about “Modern Family” when Motos interrupted Vergara asking her: “How do you say ‘Modern Family’?”

Vergara responded by saying, “Do I say it wrong? Because you speak better English than me?” Motos said “Yes,” prompting Vergara’s clap back, “How many Emmy nominations do you have in the United States? How many times have they nominated you for a Golden Globe?”

The clip spread all over the internet with most people praising Vergara’s quick wit and her shut-down of Motos’ seemingly obnoxious behavior. A little over a week after that, the “Los Angeles Times” released an interview with Vergara, where she discussed “Griselda” and the barriers she has found due to her accent.

She said, “I’m always looking for characters because there’s not much that I can play with this stupid accent. I can’t play a scientist or be in ‘Schindler’s List.’ My acting jobs are kind of limited.” Vergara added later in the interview, “Eva Longoria doesn’t have an accent. Jennifer Lopez doesn’t have an accent. Jessica Alba doesn’t have an accent. Is it frustrating? Of course. In the beginning, more than now, and the frustration was towards me. How come I can’t f— get this right? I’ve been here for 30 years. How dumb can I be?”

While it’s important to understand where Vergara is coming from, it’s even more important to point out the false premise she has seemingly bought into. The fact is that having an accent doesn’t signal being less intelligent or less talented. That she hasn’t been able to play more serious roles has nothing to do with her accent or the reality of how many actual scientists, humanitarians, and thought leaders have Spanish/English accents but rather an indictment of the pervasive bias and racism that continues to exist in Hollywood and mainstream media.

Accent or Not, Hollywood Doesn’t Reflect Reality

The false premise that having an accent somehow makes you less worthy of being taken seriously or achieving success is something the Latino/Spanish-dominant community has been dealing with for ages. Why has someone like Sofía Vergara bought into it as well? First of all, because it’s heavily sustained in her industry. Hollywood’s systemic racism is notorious and it perpetuates harmful stereotypes of Latino identity, linking Spanish-dominant Latinos and their accents or way of speech to unserious roles, uneducated characters, criminal behavior, and more.

Second of all, this false premise is sustained by society at large, particularly in the United States. Linguistic discrimination, which is illegal, is a major issue for non-native English speakers simply because they don’t speak in a way that’s considered “standard.” While it’s true that this leads to discrimination, which can limit opportunities for Latinos and other English as a second language speakers, rising above it is possible.

To overcome this harmful belief, it’s important to note that there is an abundance of research that confirms that people who speak two languages have elevated cognitive functions. The media and some in American society would like bilingual Spanish/English speakers to believe that they can’t be successful in law, health, tech, space, business, or whatever industry if perfect English isn’t spoken. Very real systemic barriers exist for those without perfect English. Data confirms this, but it certainly doesn’t help when someone like Vergara underscores that if not for her “stupid accent” she’d be an even bigger star. Instead, the frustration should be directed at why Hollywood doesn’t think a scientist can speak with a Spanish accent.

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