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Reclaiming Spanish

Social pressures cause many immigrants to stop speaking their first language, losing an aspect of cultural identity in the process. Some families are trying to keep those ties alive.

The River, Spanish language loss
Alejandra Maisonet, second from right, and her family relocated to the US from Puerto Rico in 2018, but are trying to keep both cultures alive.
Photo: Dynahlee Star Padilla
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As first-generation Latinas growing up in the United States, triplet sisters Skyler, Sabrina, and Samantha Gomez switched easily between speaking English and Spanish. But at the age they should have been formulating sentences, they were mixing languages, only able to understand each other. Their Puerto Rican father, Samuel Gomez Jr., thought they weren’t speaking proper English because they were confusing two home languages. He didn’t want them to have an accent, fearing discrimination. Their Ecuadorian mother, Sandra Cajias-Gomez, thought it was natural for her daughters to be confused, at first, when learning to speak two languages. It wouldn’t matter if they had an accent, she thought. They wouldn’t get bullied—they’re just little girls. Being bilingual would make them more competitive in the real world.

So the Gomezes compromised. Cajias-Gomez, a native Spanish-speaker who learned English at school growing up, spoke to them equally in both languages. Gomez Jr. spoke to them only in English. Dividing home languages, however, didn’t develop the girls’ language skills as their parents had hoped. The Gomezes consulted a speech pathologist, who told them the confusion stemmed from not maintaining one dominant language.

Though Cajias-Gomez didn’t want her little girls to stop learning Spanish, Gomez and the speech pathologist insisted that sticking to English at home would give the girls a better chance to succeed in the US. Eventually, Cajias-Gomez gave in.

“If she thought speaking Spanish was hindering our ability to speak [English] properly, she would’ve sacrificed anything to correct it,” Skyler says.

The River, Spanish language lossCredit: Dynahlee Star Padilla
Bilingual until age 5, Skyler Gomez relearned Spanish in college at SUNY New Paltz.

Now, 17 years later, Gomez Jr. wishes the family had maintained Spanish, too. In 2016, the Gomezes visited Puerto Rico for the first time as a family, and the girls were unable to effectively communicate with family members in Spanish. Two years later, when they visited Ecuador for the first time, Skyler’s sisters took longer to express their thoughts in Spanish than she did. The reason? Skyler had taken Spanish courses in high school and college; she can now sing along to her favorite Spanish songs by Ozuna and Bad Bunny. “It makes me proud when I can communicate back to people in Spanish, and they assume I am from the country,” she says.

Spanish Loss at Home

America’s Hispanic population reached nearly 60 million in 2018, up from 47.8 million in 2008. But according to the Pew Research Center, the rate of growth has slowed as Hispanic birth rates and immigration have declined. And while more than 37 million Latinos speak Spanish at home, their use of the language has also declined over the past decade.

A 2016 study from the Modern Language Association found that Spanish is the most-studied second language in the US, but cultural prejudices still persist. Languages become racialized by those prejudicial factors: White people who learn Spanish are often praised as worldly and educated, while bilingual immigrants—in the US and elsewhere—often aren’t encouraged to maintain their home languages. In the US, not learning English is usually a formula for lower socioeconomic status.

“While Spanish is appreciated as a language you can learn, it isn’t appreciated as a language you come with, because it’s seen as something of the past [by Americans],” says Deyanira Rojas-Sosa, associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies at SUNY New Paltz. “To them, it means immigrants don’t want to assimilate; it means they don’t want to be American.”

There are hierarchies of Spanish that many immigrants bring with them to the US. Spanish-speaking countries have a “cultured norm,” an idealized way of speaking Spanish that can shape how a person talks, says Sergio Loza, a PhD candidate of Spanish sociolinguistics and Spanish heritage language pedagogy at Arizona State University. In these countries, upper-class speakers speak “standard” Spanish, while poor and disenfranchised communities are discriminated against for their varieties of Spanish. Class, race, and ethnic disparities between groups artificially construct linguistic privilege.

“There are interethnic tensions between regional dialects within the same country and between nation states,” Loza says. In this linguistic pecking order, those “who don’t speak Spanish are considered whitewashed by US Latinos and Latin American immigrants.”

Meanwhile, Latinos in the US judge other Latinos for speaking Spanish “corrupted” by English. They may use words that are contextually inappropriate, if not incorrect or ungrammatical, according to Kim Potowski, professor of Hispanic linguistics and director of the Spanish Heritage Language Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Though US Spanish is recognized in the Royal Academy of Spanish Language, sometimes family members from back home argue with family members in the US that “estadounidismos” isn’t “true” Spanish because it has many borrowings from English.

Therefore, how much Spanish is spoken, the type of Spanish that is spoken, and how much Spanish is stressed at home can factor into language loss over time. Social and cultural pressures can stoke parents’ concerns about their children’s English-language skills and cause families to prioritize English, says Amy Lutz, associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Like the Gomezes, Betty García Mathewson, the former program director for Opening Doors Diversity Project at SUNY Brockport, also visited a speech pathologist for her first-born daughter.

García Mathewson wanted her family to grow up bilingual the way she had in Puerto Rico. When her first daughter, Sienna, was born with Down syndrome, she stuck to her plan. She met a Colombian linguist whose children were trilingual and who told her that a child needed one role model per language. Inspired, she spoke to Sienna in Spanish every day for the first two years of her life. But at age two, Sienna still wasn’t talking.

That’s when García Mathewson took up her first-born’s speech delay with a speech pathologist, who suggested sticking to one language at home. As a result, “we took Spanish out of the house,” García Mathewson says, choking back tears at the memory. “I cried for weeks.”

The River, Spanish language lossCredit: Photo courtesy of Betty García Mathewson
Betty García Mathewson (center) with her daughter Sienna (left) and granddaughter Arabella.

Years later, García Mathewson’s second-born daughter, Tara, told her mom she was angry at her for following the speech pathologist’s advice.

“When a parent speaks their own language, it binds them to the child in a different way,” says Dr. Inge Anema, an associate professor of communication disorders and sciences at SUNY New Paltz whose research focuses on bilingualism.

For a time, at least, García Mathewson was able to give Spanish to Sienna, but Tara never got that mother-daughter bond. As a child, Tara was frustrated by her efforts to acquire a language her mother was raised with. But that didn’t stop her from learning. Tara started taking Spanish courses in elementary school, and sought other ways to develop the language she “thought should have been a birthright.”

Like Samuel Gomez Jr., García Mathewson now wishes she had kept speaking Spanish with her daughters.

“That home you grew up in is your roots. Some of it supports you and affirms you, and some of it, you have to heal from,” García Mathewson says.

While in college at Northwestern University, Tara continued studying Spanish, which helped her develop her self-identity as a Puerto Rican. During her senior year, she designed a sociology thesis for which she interviewed Spanish-speaking farmworkers in New York and their families in Mexico.

“I feel like I fixed everything by getting our family and the next generation on track with bilingualism,” Tara says. “All those old feelings are just a part of our story.”

Generational Loss

Language instruction in schools directly and indirectly prioritizes monolingualism. English as a New Language (ENL), formerly known as English as a Second Language, is the most common program in the US for teaching students English. But it sends a clear message about usage. “‘Spanish is for home. English is for school,’” Lutz says. “Ideally you’d have a program emphasizing both languages, so children wouldn’t lose something important in the process.”

Not being able to use one’s home language at school may have negative consequences on opportunities later in life, as well. The focus on English can make non-native speakers fall behind in core classes like math and science. Until they master English, they will be stalled academically. According to the US Census Bureau, high school graduation rates among Hispanics are lower than those of non-Hispanics.

The upshot is that many immigrant families abandon their native tongue to better fit in socially, politically, and economically. While the US doesn’t have an official language, 31 states do: English. New York and New Jersey are among the others considering similar legislation.

A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that Spanish dominance is on the decline among second- and third-generation Latinos. While 61 percent of Hispanic immigrants in the US are Spanish dominant (and another 32 percent are bilingual), the share who are Spanish dominant drops to six percent by the second-generation and to less than one percent among third or higher generation Hispanics.

Linguist and professor Joshua Fishman describes language loss in the US as a three-generation process: First-generation immigrants are bilingual but dominant in their native language. The second generation speak their parents’ language but are dominant in English. The third generation know some of their grandparents’ language but speak primarily English⁠—people like Starr Ramos, a third-generation Mexican-Ecuadorian college student.

One day while Ramos was at work in Manhattan, a customer spoke to her in Spanish. Ramos responded in English. The customer was taken aback, so Ramos tried in Spanish. But her pronunciation was off. The customer shot back: “Con una cara así, ¿por qué no hablas español?”

With a face like that, why don’t you speak Spanish?

Flustered and defeated, Ramos reverted to English. She pointed to the amount due and told the customer’s English-speaking daughter to pay.

Ramos was born in the United States and grew up in Brooklyn with Spanish-speaking grandparents. When they asked her about school or what to eat, she would sometimes respond in English, sometimes in Spanglish. Ramos’s parents never asked her to speak Spanish, nor did they speak it to her. But they expected her to roll her r’s, curl her tongue, and maintain a silent h.

The thought of uttering a word in Spanish still makes the 21-year-old student anxious. Ramos’ family even calls her a “gringa” for self-identifying as Latina but not sounding like one.

“Sometimes, to not feel a part of that heritage feels frustrating,” she says. “But that’s the reality.”

Fear of Discrimination

Striving for bilingualism in today’s America is made challenging by old prejudices taking new form. President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has made the nation’s largest minority group more wary of speaking their mother tongue. Latinos worry about hostile glances, being questioned and judged for their English, and threatened or deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Patrol. According to a 2018 study of US Latino concerns by the Pew Research Center, 38 percent reported a discriminatory incident or unfair treatment, especially immigrant Hispanics compared to US-born Hispanics.

Angelica Silva Perez, 19, has dealt with anti-immigrant sentiment most of her life. She tells people she’s “Mexico-born, America-raised.” She is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the American immigration policy that allows some undocumented immigrants who came to the US before age 16 to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation. Silva Perez’s early schooling was in Mexico, where instruction was solely in Spanish, and her mother taught her to read and write in Spanish. When she moved to the US, she enrolled in public school to complete her studies. Because English was the primary language, she began losing her formal Spanish.

In middle school, while most students chose to study French, Silva Perez chose to improve her mother tongue. A classmate challenged her. “Why are you taking Spanish if you already know Spanish?” He claimed she was trying to get an easy A.

Others taunted her for being Mexican. They’d ask about her legal status. Some even created a game called “Over the Border.”

The River, Spanish language lossCredit: Dynahlee Star Padilla
Angelica Silva Perez made this painting in her senior year to represent her Mexican identity in America.

“It became a joke, but it really wasn’t,” Silva Perez says. Though she never participated or thought it was funny, she didn’t say anything. She thought her friends wouldn’t understand or care enough to stop or change.

The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, an American boy sitting in the front row of the class began chanting “Trump” over and over. Silva Perez asked him to stop. He did, but asked why.

The chant reminded Silva Perez of the border wall. Deportation. ICE. People in her community. Her family. Herself.

“That boy didn’t know anything about what that election meant for undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, visa holders, my family, and others,” Silva Perez says. “He was a representation of uneducated people who don’t see the whole picture because of lack of discussion and resources in school.”

The Future Is Spanish

In a place like the US, claiming bilingualism but ultimately being pushed toward English is the norm. Yet certain circumstances allow for the potential to bring a mother language back.

Not all of those are welcome. For instance, after Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico in 2018, Alejandra Maisonet and her young daughter, Anastasia Maldonado, were two of the many Puerto Ricans who fled to the continental US. They went to the Plattekill home of Maisonet’s aunt, Cathi Castillo, executive secretary to the college president at SUNY New Paltz.

Although Maisonet is fluent in English and Spanish, her little girl didn’t speak English. To accommodate her, in October of 2017 Castillo’s family chose to speak only Spanish at home. Her children’s Spanish was based on overhearing conversations from mami and papi and hearing Spanish spoken by grandparents and family members during visits. But spending time with her great niece and seeing how her adult children interacted with Anastasia made Castillo wish she had taught them Spanish.

Alejandra Maisonet is teaching her daughter, Anastasia, a Puerto Rican girl in the US, both Spanish and English. Here’s why. Graphic art by Dynahlee Star Padilla

“I realize my family will probably be the last generation who will speak Spanish. And that makes me really sad,” Castillo says.

Anastasia, now four years old, is in her last semester at daycare and is proficient in English. She speaks Spanish, too, and tells her mom she is proud to do so—especially when she is able to repeat words her mother teachers her. She’s growing up learning, speaking, and understanding two languages. Her mother, Maisonet, wouldn’t raise her any other way.

In Puerto Rico, Maisonet grew up watching television and speaking English with her father, Ramón. When speaking to her mother, it was only in Spanish. This way, she’d be surrounded by both cultures and languages. She wants the same for her daughter.

“My hope is for this little girl to change the pattern of language loss for her entire generation,” Castillo says.

The River, Spanish language lossCredit: Photo courtesy of Betty García Mathewson
Tara García Mathewson and her daughter, Arabella.

Like Maisonet, Tara García Mathewson is using bilingualism to deepen a cultural and linguistic bond with her daughter. After working hard to reclaim her Puerto Rican self-identity by learning Spanish, she doesn’t want her one-year-old Arabella to struggle to speak the language. With a Puerto Rican mother, a Panamanian father, and a Dominican babysitter, Arabella can keep Spanish in her life.

“I always felt like I couldn’t fully claim my Puerto Rican heritage until I became fluent in Spanish,” Tara says. “Learning the language made me feel like the world had to recognize me for who I really was. I want Arabella to be bilingual and really feel like both languages are hers, too.”