Most parents cherish their culture. They want to pass on the heritage that flows through their veins.
Perhaps the most telling way to share their rich culture is through the language.
In San Antonio, where almost 60 percent of residents are Mexican-American, one might assume the Spanish language is a birthright. But it is not always easy for Mexican-American children to inherit the native tongue of their ancestors. Many parents do not know the language themselves and are unable to teach their children.
According to a 1989-1990 Nicolan & Valdivieso research report, third generation Hispanics speak English as their mother tongue.
“Spanish isn’t dying, but a lot of people are acquiring English as their first language,” said Howard Smith, an assistant professor of bilingual education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
For Kelly Morales, a 7-year-old who wants to be a singer when he grows up, being bilingual gives him a sense of pride.
“I want to communicate with other people,” said Kelly as he turned to his baby sister Katherine and showed her a glass of water.
“Agua,” he said.
“Agua,” she repeated and his face gleamed with pride.
Kelly is the first of 10 grandchildren to speak Spanish. His proud mother, Kelly Ann Robinson Morales, said her Spanish-speaking in-laws adjusted to speaking English to their other grandchildren and needed to be coaxed to speaking Spanish to Kelly.
“He sings these Spanish songs that his grandparents learned when they were little and they are just amazed,” said Kelly Ann, who learned the language as a foreign exchange student in Venezuela.
Monolingualism even among Spanish speakers is a tragedy, said Smith. Many grandchildren are unable to speak to their own grandparents because the grandparents only speak Spanish.
Frank Morales, Kelly’s father, also is fluent and wants his children to learn Spanish.
“My parents are just so used to talking to the kids in English,” he said. “It seems that many of his (Kelly’s) cousins look at Spanish as a second-class language. They think it doesn’t sound smart.”
The importance of language must be respected and people who speak different languages should not be seen as inferior, said Smith.
“It is not just language,” Smith added. “We now realize that even when we assimilate, there is no guarantee to be accepted by the greater society.”
Kelly doesn’t seem to mind how the language sounds. Not only does he practice his Spanish at home, he gets positive reinforcement at Herff Elementary School, which offers a dual language program, promoting language and literacy in both Spanish and English. Kelly is now in second grade and loves the idea of knowing two languages.
Morales wants his son to learn the academics of the language, but confessed to wanting Kelly to learn the language of his culture.
“I guess your heart moves you more than anything else,” his father said. “It is all about culture. It is a benefit for me to be bilingual and I want that for Kelly.”
Faviola Fierros is a fifth-grader at Bonham Elementary School in the King William area. It is another school which offers an immersion, or dual language, program. She is proud to know her native language, she said.
“I feel important because I feel people need me. I translate for them, especially my mom and dad,” said 10 year-old Faviola, whose parents speak only Spanish.
“In my future, I can do a lot of work and help a lot of people.”
The advantages of knowing two languages is somewhat lost when it is considered a hindrance. Some Hispanic children have no desire to speak Spanish.
Philip Arevalo Jr., a seventh-grader at Alamo Heights Middle School, has no interest in learning Spanish even though his two best friends are bilingual.
“It is too hard,” said Philip, 12.
His father, Philip Arevalo, is an English literature professor at St. Philip’s College. He explained he didn’t learn Spanish as a child. But it doesn’t mean he is not proud of his heritage. In fact, he introduces Latin and Mexican-American literature to his students. He said he didn’t get the same encouragement as a boy.
“There was no redeeming quality to speaking Spanish back then,” Arevalo said. “I was pretty much raised in a white world. If you had an accent, they (classmates) called you a ‘dirty Mexican.’ You could feel the heat climbing up your back with embarrassment.”
The elder Arevalo, the only one of five siblings with a desire to be closer to his culture, did try learning. Between teasing classmates, a grandmother who laughed at his attempts and parents who spoke to their children only in English, he opted to go with the flow. Now, he still is trying to learn to speak Spanish fluently.
“Now I am ashamed of what I felt then,” Arevalo said. “Hispanics shouldn’t be ashamed of what they are. We didn’t choose to not speak Spanish, that is the way we were raised.”
He wishes dual language programs had emerged sooner for his son’s sake. He said he can’t force him to learn Spanish, but as a parent, he still can nudge.
Smith certainly thinks dual-language programs are a step in the right direction.
“Schools are now reflecting many cultures,” Smith said. “Educated people (from other countries) commonly speak two to three languages. It is a fallacy that your patriotism can be defined by the language we speak.”
Children of other nationalities see opportunities in the Spanish language. They see it as an asset.
Raymond “Ray” Bohuslav, a 10-year-old of Czech decent, is fluent in Spanish. He is a fifth-grader at Bonham Elementary School.
“My best friend Jaime didn’t speak any English and now I can talk to him,” Ray said. “We speak a kind of mixed language. It will definitely help me when I am older. I will get to make more friends.”
The youngster also wants to learn Japanese.
Though Morales and Arevalo want their sons to be in touch with their heritage, the choices are up to the boys, they say. Whether they choose to carry on the traditional language or create new customs, only time will tell.
“I want to talk to people that don’t know English,” said Kelly.