Language and Identity, Part II

In part two of our series on language and identity, NPR' Mandalit Del Barco reports on Latinos in the United States who are improving their Spanish or who are learning the language for the first time. About one quarter of all Hispanics in the U.S. spe

BYLINE: Mandalit Del Barco, Los Angeles; Corey Flintoff COREY FLINTOFF, HOST: For some people, the language they speak identifies who they are. For others, language is a heritage that we may or may not be able to claim. The latest census figures show that, while 38% of all Hispanics in this country are fluent in both Spanish and English, 22% speak only English. As part of a series on language and identity, NPR’s Mandalit del Barco reports on Latinos seeking to reclaim their Spanish. MANDALIT DEL BARCO: At the same time that voters in California have reject bilingual education and mandated English-only classrooms, Spanish is hot, at least culturally. The top-rated radio station and television newscast in Los Angeles are both broadcast in Spanish. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF PROMO FOR SPANISH-LANGUAGE RADIO STATION SUNG IN SPANISH) In Los Angeles, many U.S.-born Latinos are now reclaiming the language of their parents or grandparents. SOUNDBITE OF LATINO COMPUTER PROGRAMMER LUIS MANSANO (PH) SPEAKING IN SPANISH WITH BERLITZ TUTOR Luis Mansano is trying to perfect his Spanish with a tutor at Berlitz. Like a lot of Latinos, he grew up speaking only English. Now he’s hoping to be able to read romantic Spanish poetry like a native. SOUNDBITE OF MANSANO READING IN SPANISH AND TUTOR CORRECTING HIS PRONUNCIATION Mansano grew up in an all-American neighborhood in northern California where there was no bilingual education. Like many Latinos in this country, he spoke a little Spanish with his parents, but never outside of home. In fact, he pretty much abandoned the language at age five or six when he started school. But now, at the age of 36, the computer programmer has become enamored with Spanish. MANSANO: I don’t know, when I speak Spanish I feel like I’m speaking from the center of my core. I’m more warm, I’m more affectionate. And when I speak English I feel like I’m more, you know, efficient. I really feel like two different people. And the way I relate to people, depending on the language, is really different. DEL BARCO: Monsano is an example of what linguists call heritage language speakers, those whose parents or ancestors spoke the language. Many of them understand Spanish but don’t necessarily speak it. Scholars now recognize the importance of preserving or conserving heritage language and a conference this month at Yale University will address the topic. Russell Campbell (ph) is professor emeritus of applied linguistics at UCLA. He says teaching Spanish to Latinos can be very different from teaching those who have never been exposed to the language. RUSSELL CAMPBELL, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF APPLIED LINGUISTICS, UCLA: What you bring with you is interestingly different from what an Anglo comes to take Spanish in that department. He doesn’t have to learn pronunciation. I have to learn pronunciation as an Anglo if I’m studying Spanish. This Latino heritage language speaker, no problem. DEL BARCO: Campbell says those whose families spoke Spanish usually also have a good command of socio-linguistic rules, knowing how to speak to elders or peers in formal settings or informal, the “usted” (ph) or “tu” (ph). He says what many Latinos who abandon Spanish at an early age do sometimes need to learn more is vocabulary, verb conjugations, and how to read and write in Spanish. Learning can be fairly easy for those who have Spanish in the back of their mind somewhere. But some third- or fourth-generation Latinos have a harder time. Actress Constance Marie Lopez (ph) has been studying Spanish for the past year. As a third-generation Chicana from Los Angeles, she grew up speaking only English, like her mother and grandmother. CONSTANCE MARIE LOPEZ, ACTRESS AND THIRD-GENERATION CHICANA FROM LOS ANGELES: It’s not a gene. You know, you’re not born with a gene that automatically predisposes you to be able to go “rrrrr” or to speak the language I mean. DEL BARCO: Lopez started Spanish lessons after appearing in the film “My Family/Mi Familia” as a politically active Mexico-American daughter returning from El Salvador. Then she continued Spanish classes to prepare for her film role as the mother of slain Tejana (ph) star Selina (ph), who in real life also had to learn Spanish. CONSTANCE MARIE LOPEZ: It’s a Catch-22, because the Latinos think you’re supposed to speak Spanish. Ashame — I’ve heard this so many times — shame on you if you don’t speak Spanish. And then Anglos just — well, Anglos, whoever here in America, they sort of just expect you to speak Spanish. Like it’s so funny, people will — somebody will say something in Spanish and people automatically just look at me and go, “What did they say?” And I go, “I don’t know,” you know. DEL BARCO: Singer Linda Ronstadt (ph) says she learned Spanish so she could sing the songs her father loved. And actor Erik Estrada (ph) learned to speak Spanish to star in Mexico telenovellas (ph), though his accent was sometimes mocked. “Bocho” (ph) is the derogatory name some Mexicans give to Mexican-Americans or Chicanos who don’t speak Spanish or who speak it badly. But there are a few who have jokingly turned this term around and ironically are reclaiming it. LALO LOPEZ (PH), WRITER/PUBLISHER, BOCHO MAGAZINE: You know you’re bocho if… ESTABAN SUEL (PH), WRITER/PUBLISHER, BOCHO MAGAZINE: If you go to Taco Bell and you order a quesadilla (ph) without cheese, you might be a bocho. DEL BARCO: Lalo Lopez and Estaban Suel write and publish Bocho magazine, a satirical cartoon book. LALO LOPEZ: As bochos, we’ll go down to Mexico and, you know, all of our accents are suspect, you know. If we’re, you know, if we mangle one word in Spanish, you know, we’re traitors and siding with the U.S. On the other hand, everyone down there in Mexico is saying “hi” to each other and eating pie and… SUEL: French fries. LALO LOPEZ: French fries and Big Mac. And, you know, and they love American culture. But yet, you know, they’re just as schizophrenic as we are, you know. DEL BARCO: Despite his English-only education, Lopez was able to retain his Spanish. But like many American Latinos, Suel says he grew up understanding Spanish but not able to speak it. SUEL: I was taught English by my mother, who was afraid that if I learned Spanish I would not be able to succeed in school or I would be, you know — she told me stories about how she was beaten or spanked for speaking Spanish in school. DEL BARCO: But at age 25, he finally decided to steep himself in the language by going to Mexico. SUEL: It’s something that I knew I had to do. I mean I’m a Mexican. I should speak Spanish, you know. I can’t go through the rest of my life not knowing how to speak Spanish, it’s just not gonna happen. DEL BARCO: Cal State-Northridge professor Bill Flores (ph) says he also studied Spanish in Mexico, embarrassed that the progressive Anglos he knew spoke better than he did. During the Chicano movement of the 1970s, speaking Spanish was an issue of cultural pride. Flores sees that resurfacing among young Latinos today. For him, learning Spanish allowed him a wonderful discovery about his own grandfather. PROFESSOR BILL FLORES, CAL STATE-NORTHRIDGE: I’d been in Mexico for almost a year, and I came into his house and I started speaking to him in Spanish and he started to cry, he was so happy. And he pulled me over into the kitchen and he pulled out the family Bible, and it was, you know, over a hundred years old, and he started showing me like the family history and talking to me about my relatives. All of the kinds of things that he wanted to tell me all of his life, that he wanted to tell all of us, but that he couldn’t because we couldn’t speak Spanish. DEL BARCO: Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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