While some “broken Spanish” was spoken around the home, Brawley resident David Ramos said English was emphasized by his parents and grandparents.
A third-generation Mexican-American, Ramos said that while he wished his Spanish proficiency was better he does not feel like a part of his Latino identity suffers on account of it.
Yet, according to first-generation Mexican-American students he encountered while in college, Ramos was not Mexican enough.
“They would call us coconuts,” Ramos, now the vice principal at Brawley’s Hidalgo Elementary School, said.
Now with children of his own that can neither speak Spanish, Ramos said he is not that concerned since English is “the language of success.”
For some individuals, their ethnic heritage is tied to the ability to speak the native tongue of their ancestors. But as many language experts note and as Ramos’ narrative demonstrates, ancestral-language retention becomes something of a challenge for latter generations.
Indeed, only 38 percent of third–generation Latinos — U.S.-born kids with foreign-born grandparents — are proficient in Spanish, compared to 79 percent of the second generation, according to a report recently published by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Losing the ability to speak the native language of one’s ancestors is “really universal and quite predictable,” said Grant Goodall, linguistics professor at University of California, San Diego. Border communities such as the Imperial Valley, where 73 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the Census Bureau, are no exception, Goodall said.
Third-generation Latinos will often have a passive understanding of Spanish but will not be able to speak it, Goodall said. Yet in Spanish-speaking communities, proficiency is very much tied to concepts of ethnic identity.
Growing up on Brawley’s eastside exposed Ramos to plenty of Latino culture, he said, adding that family shopping trips to Mexicali were common, too. In the Valley, a wholly different culture has been created by latter-generation Hispanics such as himself, Ramos said, and debating with first-generation Hispanic-Americans about which one is more culturally authentic is beside the point.
“The worst part is we fight among ourselves (about what it means to be Mexican),” Ramos said.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s 2009 National Survey of Latinos, about half of the 16- 25-year-olds that were surveyed identified themselves first by their parent’s country of origin, be it Mexico, Peru or Cuba. The study also revealed that only those Latino youths of third or latter generations refer to themselves as Americans first.
With immigration from Mexico dropping to historic lows, language usage in predominantly Hispanic communities may eventually see noticeable changes. As fewer replace the pool of Spanish speakers, the next generation of Latino residents may see less of a need to speak Spanish.
But even if immigration were to completely stop, it would still take a few generations for there to be a noticeable drop in the usage of Spanish, Goodall said.
“We’re not likely to see anything so dramatic in our lifetimes,” he said.
Along the border a system should be set up so that both the English and Spanish languages are promoted so as to foster cross-border interaction and economic activity, Goodall said. Such heightened integration between cultures and economies would be seen as being essential to everyday survival.
“You could see more bilingualism by choice because it would allow people to live more comfortably,” Goodall said.
Given a choice, 6-year-old Enrique Campos would rather not have to speak Spanish at all, his mother Monica Campos said.
Although Spanish is spoken primarily in their El Centro household, Campos said her son will often choose to remain silent in order to avoid speaking Spanish.
“Unless he’s hungry,” Campos said in a conversation that included both Spanish and English.
Often, instead of responding to his mother in Spanish, Enrique will choose to speak with his sister in English and then have her translate his response into Spanish for their mother, Campos said.
“It seems to me he is ashamed of having a mom that speaks Spanish,” Campos said, adding that her son won’t even socialize with kids at school who speak Spanish.. “I don’t want him to be ashamed of his roots.”
Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, Campos said she is often annoyed by Hispanic people who respond to her Spanish dialogue in English. She said that in such instances it is obvious that the other person understands and speaks Spanish, yet for some reason chooses to respond in English.
“I never wanted my son to act like that,” she said, referring to Enrique's refusal to speak Spanish. "But I love my son dearly, and accept him the way he is."
As part of her effort to have Enrique retain his Spanish proficiency, Campos said she has curtailed his English-language television viewing time — which may have merit.
Young children are highly perceptive and often associate power and success with television programs that have noticeably larger production budgets than their ethnic television counterparts, Goodall said.
“Kids pick up on that,” Goodall said.
This report was updated to include additional information.
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