This one cuts close to the bone. You see, I am proud of my Latino heritage yet none of my three sons speak Spanish. To be fair, my youngest son is only two years old so the jury is still out but between us, it doesn’t look good (my wife disagrees). My two teenage sons generally understand Spanish but neither posses enough command of Spanish to be considered bilingual nor do they express any interest to learn. I’ll frame my thoughts regarding this complicated and sensitive topic around three factors: (1) the disappointment, (2) the New Yorican, and (3) the language link.
I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in myself when my bilingual friends approach my sons in Spanish and they either can’t or are too embarrassed in their remedial Spanish to respond. I make my living as a Hispanic Marketing Communications Professional which is largely dependent on my bilingual skill set. Consequently, I cringe at the thought that I have limited my children’s career possibilities by not gifting to them the ability to command Spanish. I’m mostly disappointed in myself when my children’s ability to communicate and bond with our family is effectively crippled because abuelita (grandma) doesn’t speak English and the grandchildren don’t speak Spanish. My mom often proudly proclaims, “I made you bilingual and to that you owe your present day success.” Respectfully, my mom’s not quite right. She spoke to me in the only language she commanded (Spanish). I was raised in a country whose primary language is English. My being bilingual is the natural consequence of being born bicultural and balancing two languages since day one…but I digress. Regarding language, how have you managed your U.S. born Hispanic children? How did your parents manage you regarding language and identity?
The New Yorican
I grew up in Northern New Jersey (just outside NYC), happily coexisting with a large community of post-first generation Puerto-Rican brothers and sisters casually referred to as “New Yoricans”. The New Yorican community didn’t necessarily command Spanish like their parents and grandparents and many never stepped foot in Puerto Rico. However, what I recall most about this community of Latinos in the northeast was the enormous sense of publicly displayed pride New Yoricans expressed regarding their Puerto Rican heritage. Any charges of not being Hispanic based on the perceived requirement of command of the Spanish language or tacit knowledge of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico did not surface. For me, New Yoricans are as U.S. Hispanic as they come, regardless of how well they may or may not command the Spanish language. So if New Yoricans can be proud of their Hispanic heritage with or without Spanish, why do I place so much emphasis on language to define my own children’s degree of Hispanic authenticity? Am I alone in regarding these conflicting feelings of language and identify?
The Language Link
Language is social currency. In my experience, to the degree you can command the language of a given community is the degree by which that community accepts you. By command, I mean not only the general language, but rather all the nuances, voice inflections, rate of speech, slang and other idiosyncrasies that denote your level of cultural authenticity. As a veteran Spanish language teacher once told me, language is like a living cell that takes on the form of the environment in which it is set. This explanation is true regardless of language spoken. For example, when English is spoken in England, it differs from English in North America – English in South Carolina is not often confused with English in New York, so on and so forth. When it comes to Hispanics in North America, where Latinos from as many as 20 different Hispanic countries-of-origin reside, Spanish is dynamic and constantly in flux. As a consequence, even if your children speak Spanish in the United States, there exists the additional criteria to command a broader range of Spanish dialects in order to receive social acceptance among a diverse community of Hispanics. So is there a sliding degree of acceptance that our bicultural kids will receive, from rejected if no Spanish is spoken on one end of the spectrum to fully accepted on the other if your child fully commands Spanish in multiple dialects?
In the end, I’m emotionally conflicted on this topic. Please help me find more reasonable ground by sharing your thoughts, experiences and position on this matter. By the way, the three factors I discuss are not the only dimensions regarding this topic so please feel free to add other consideration that I have not covered.
We look forward to your contribution.
Born Bicultural USA