6 Things To Know to Make a Good First Impression with Spanish Speaking Clients

By Lindsy Lev, MusicWorx Intern

Even though all my music therapy education took place in Texas and I am now interning in San Diego, I often find myself being the only Spanish speaking staff member in the room. This comes as a surprise to many people, given that the 2017 Census showed that Hispanic/Latino people make up approximately 39% of the population of both California and Texas. This statistic shows us just how likely it is for music therapists in these states to encounter Spanish speaking clients in their clinical work. If you’re a MusicWorx intern like me, working with Spanish speaking clients is basically a given; approximately 35% of Resounding Joy’s clients are Hispanic/Latino. However, even if you don’t live in a border state, the Hispanic/Latino population is “the nation’s second-fastest-growing racial or ethnic group” according to the Pew Research Center, and as such, music therapists across the country are likely to encounter Spanish speaking clients at some point in their careers.

So what are music therapists to do if they don’t know any Spanish? Have you ever walked into a room with a client from a Spanish speaking culture and not known how to approach the situation from a culturally competent perspective? There is, of course, no substitute for actually learning how to speak Spanish and studying cultural considerations relevant to Spanish speaking cultures in depth. However, in my humble opinion as a bilingual and bicultural person, these are the things you should prioritize on getting right in order to make a good first impression and build better rapport with Hispanic/Latino clients.

1. What do I even call you people?

It has come to my attention that there may be some confusion surrounding terms like Hispanic and Latino. And what is up with this whole “Latinx” thing you see nowadays? Let’s clear up some of that vocabulary and the reasons why we have so many different terms. I should add that I have had many a conversation with people back home (Costa Rica) about this, as well as with people from Latin America living in the United States, and even we can get confused about these terms. Roughly, though, here is the gist of it:

  • Hispanic: someone who comes (or whose heritage is that of) a country that speaks Spanish. This includes Spain and Equatorial Guinea (the only country in Africa with Spanish as an official language!), meaning a person from either of these countries could identify as Hispanic.
  • Latino/Latina: someone who comes from (or whose heritage is that of) a country below the USA, including countries in the Caribbean. Note: this includes places like Brazil or Belize, where Spanish is not the official language! So someone could be Latino and not Hispanic, or Hispanic and not Latino.
  • Latinx: you may have noticed that Spanish is a very gendered language, especially as compared to English. Latino refers to men, Latina refers to women. Recently, in an effort to make written Spanish more gender neutral, people have taken to placing an “x” in words you would normally place an “a” or “o” to denote a gendered word. This isn’t only for the word “Latinx”. For instance, I have seen friends invite their “amigxs” to things, when they want to include both female and male friends in their invitations. To be honest, though, this really only works in written language. I have yet to actually hear someone speak the word “Latinx”, so I don’t know how you would go about pronouncing it.
  • SOMETHING TO REMEMBER: People from the Spanish speaking world have a variety of different racial backgrounds. These terms have nothing to do with the color of a person’s skin.

This mini-comic sums the topic up nicely:

[button size=”big_large” type=”normal” target=”_self” text=”You Say Latino” link=”” color=”#ffffff”]

2. Pleased to meet you…

The Spanish language naming system does several things differently than the English one. One of these differences is in how we respectfully address someone by name. Let’s use a hypothetical couple as an example:

You are about to work with a Hispanic woman named Rosalía Hernández. She is accompanied by her husband, Rubén Peña. How would you address them when introducing yourself to them?

Unlike with the English system, under which you would call them Mrs. Hernández and Mr. Peña, it would be more culturally appropriate to call them Doña Rosalía and Don Rubén. In other words, for women you use Doña (first name) and for men you use Don (first name). Don and Doña are used regardless of whether a person is married or not, but they do imply a certain age. I would not call a young person Don or Doña. There really isn’t an equivalent for things like “miss” in Spanish, in the sense that you would not call someone “Señorita Rosalía”. That sounds strange and awkward. Señorita only works if you’re using it on its own, as in “hola, señorita.” I would only use señorita, señor, and señora if you don’t know the person’s name.

3. Pronounce their names correctly.

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says “a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So make sure you’re getting it right by following these tips!

  • Never pronounce the letter H in Spanish!! Seriously, just pretend it isn’t even there. Using our example couple above, Doña Rosalía’s last name is pronounced “Er-NAN-des”, not “Herr-NAN-dez”.
  • On the topic of the name Hernández: Unless you’re speaking to someone from Spain, the letter Z is pronounced just like an S. If you are, in fact, speaking to a Spaniard, the letter Z is pronounced more like a “th”. In either case, don’t draw out Zs like you would in English.
  • What’s that weird little ‘ thing on top of the A in Hernández, by the way? Is it the same as the ones in Rosalía and Rubén? That little mark is called a tilde, and it’s an accent mark over a vowel to show that it’s the emphasized vowel in the word. Therefore, you pronounce Rosalía and Rubén like this: Ro-sa-LI-a and Ru-BEN.
  • You know what’s not an accent mark? The squiggle over the N in Peña. That is not an accented N. It is a whole different letter, Ñ, pronounced “EH-nee-eh.” Basically, pronounce this letter as if it was the syllable “ni”. Do not pronounce poor Don Rubén’s last name PEH-na. It’s PEH-nia.

Rs are possibly the most intimidating consonant in the Spanish language for non-native speakers. I have listened to non-native speakers cry, “But you were born being able to do that! I could never roll my Rs like you do.” To which I answer- you are absolutely wrong! I was actually born with a speech impediment and wasn’t physically capable of rolling my Rs until I was 15, after I had a corrective frenulum surgery. I taught myself how to roll my Rs by doing tongue twisters. It is possible! You can do it, I believe in you! Try the first two tongue twisters at this link. And remember, not every R needs to be rolled in Spanish. Do your best to roll (or at least emphasize) Rs found at the beginning of words or between vowels. For the rest, just flip them.

4. Learn these phrases.

If you don’t know any Spanish beyond “hola” and “gracias”, at least learn these phrases:

  • ¿Qué tipo de música le gusta?: What kind of music do you like?
  • ¿Está con dolor? ¿Cuánto dolor tiene?: Are you in pain? How much pain do you have?
  • ¿Cuánto estrés siente ahorita?: How much stress do you feel right now?
  • Mucho gusto: literally translates to “much pleasure”. It basically means “nice to meet you.”
  • ¿De adónde es su familia?: Where is your family from?
  • Que Dios la/lo bendiga.: May God bless you. (You’ll hear people say this a lot as a farewell. I would only use it if you know the client is religious.)

5. It’s Music Therapy, not Musical Therapy.

The correct way to translate music therapy is musicoterapia. The correct way to translate music therapist is musicoterapeuta. When I see people translate it as terapia musical, it makes me feel like this:

That would be like calling music therapy “musical therapy.” I know at least one reader cringed at that. Right? Please don’t tell people we do musical therapy, in any language. Thanks.

With that in mind, add this to your list of phrases to know: “Hola, mi nombre es ____. Soy musicoterapeuta.”

6. Practice Cultural Humility.

More than any linguistic advice I could give you, being humble and knowing that you do not know is the most impactful attitude you can have when working with people whose culture is not your own. Remember that  21 countries have Spanish as an official language, and all of them have unique cultures and musical heritages. Please don’t go into a session with a South American client assuming that they will know that cool ranchera that you learned in school. Don’t assume that if your client is from Mexico they grew up knowing how to dance bachata before they could walk. And for the love of all that is good, don’t call someone “Spanish” unless they’re actually from Spain. Be mindful that microaggressions are real, and watch your language accordingly. Some well-intentioned microaggressions I’ve received because of my Hispanic heritage:

  • What part of Mexico are you from??
  • That’s so nice that you got to go to such a good school because of all those minority scholarships they have now!
  • Here, I got you something! I thought you’d like it because it has a chili pepper on it and it says Caliente!

(Never mind the fact that there’s a whole subcontinent of other countries below Mexico, I’ve never met anyone on a minority scholarship, and Costa Ricans don’t use spicy peppers in their typical cuisine.)

Please don’t be that person. Or you’ll see your Spanish speaking clients make this face at you:


Cultural humility is important for your workplace relationships, too. According to the AMTA 2011 Member Survey & Workforce Analysis, 37% of AMTA members identify as Hispanic/Latino. Just like you wouldn’t want to use microaggressions in your interactions with your clients, you should be aware of the assumptions you have about your Hispanic/Latino coworkers or employees (we have feelings too!). Also keep in mind that people of minority groups may have differing feelings about “educating” others. For example, I know some people of color (POC) who feel exhausted at the thought of having to explain their culture constantly, and understandably feel like it is not their job to educate people from the majority culture about their heritage. Personally, I am generally happy to answer questions about the various intersections of my cultural identity, but some days I really don’t have the energy.

My general advice is that if you want to know a simple factoid, try Googling it first. If you still have questions, ask a human about it, while still being aware that there is no one person that represents an entire race/ethnicity/religion/sexual orientation. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking “well, my (insert cultural identity here) friend said it was ok, so all people of (insert cultural identity here) should think it’s ok too!”

Finally, note that some clients or colleagues may identify as bicultural, and that’s a whole other ballgame that is beyond the scope of this blogpost! If you want to read more about cultural intersections in music therapy, this blog post by a former MusicWorx intern is a good place to start.

I hope this blog post has given you some good tips for how to properly address and speak to Spanish speaking clients. Remember, we can’t learn everything about every culture, so if you have a question, as long as it’s respectful, don’t be afraid to ask or look up the answer for yourself!

¡Pura Vida!


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