ALBUQUERQUE—Alejandro Emslie grew up speaking Spanish with his grandmother at home, but once he started school he struggled when teachers discouraged him from speaking anything but English.
Emslie, 29, who attended schools in Santa Fe, Portales and Mesilla in the ’70s and ’80s, said white students filled computer classes, while Spanish speakers were encouraged to take shop.
“We were placed in the back of the room or we were told in front of a classroom of our peers that we were not to speak Spanish,” he said. “I was made to feel very self-conscious about speaking Spanish.”
But in hindsight, Emslie said he’s glad he speaks Spanish. He’s seen interest double over the last few years at the Spanish Resource Center at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, where he helps people learn the language.
A recent U.S. Census Bureau survey estimated that New Mexico has the highest percentage – 28.26 percent – of residents who speak Spanish nationwide. Texas ranked second with 27.63 percent and California third with 25.69 percent.
The estimates were made from the 53-question “American Community Survey” of 700,000 households in 1,203 counties nationwide. Twelve New Mexico counties
participated: Bernalillo, Chaves, Dona Ana, Eddy, Lea, Los Alamos, McKinley, Sandoval, San Juan, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Sierra.
Census Bureau officials hope the survey will replace a similar census form by 2003.
The survey also found that 35.5 percent of New Mexicans older than 5 years old speak foreign languages in the home, the second highest percentage in the country after California.
An estimated 28.3 percent spoke Spanish, 5.2 percent spoke other languages (which likely includes American Indian languages), 1.3 percent spoke Indo-European languages and 0.7 percent spoke Asian or Pacific Island languages.
But New Mexicans who work with non-English speakers challenged another survey finding that showed 4.2 percent of children older than 5 and adults (69,790
people) speak English “not well” or “not at all.”
Though the advocates and government officials interviewed couldn’t provide their own estimate, most said the figure was surprisingly low.
Leo Anchondo, who helps provide legal services to undocumented workers and immigrants through Catholic Charities of Central New Mexico, said the people he serves would not answer a government survey.
“I bet you money, 30 to 40 percent of those undocumented people were uncounted because they’re afraid of authority,” he said.
The survey data would be used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine the number of school children with limited English proficiency, Nancy Gordon, the Census Bureau’s associate director for demographic programs, said last week.
Gladys Herrera, the director of bilingual programs under the state Department of Education, said some state programs serve school districts where at least 50 percent of the students have limited proficiency in English.
Herrera said she fears that if federal estimates are low, federal funding to New Mexico schools could be jeopardized.
“Without that money, I don’t think we could provide for all our kids,” she said.
Already, advocates for non-English speakers say resources are stretched too thin, especially at hospitals and in government offices.
“We have a very serious problem in the state because the health providers constantly deny services based on lack of interpretation systems,” Anchondo said.
He said hospital janitors or children of sick parents have been asked to interpret complex medical terms for non-English speakers.
Advocates also charged government offices lacked bilingual materials, for example, driver’s license test handbooks in Spanish, even though New Mexico is officially a bilingual state.
But Robin Otten, deputy secretary of the state Health and Human Services Department, defended her department’s ability to serve Spanish-speaking clients.
Bilingual caseworkers are available in offices in parts of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Anthony, Las Cruces and Deming and brochures are routinely printed in Spanish to ensure Spanish speakers have access to social services, she said.
Still, Otten admitted the state could do more.
“I’m sure that there’s a greater need than what we provide,” she said.
Despite the challenges of being a bilingual state, New Mexicans say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Having a diversity of languages I believe enriches the state. We’re enriched by people’s experiences, their lives, their stories,” said Stephen Sanchez, director of transitional programs for non-English speakers at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute.