Thursday, November 1, 2007

The language factor (o qué onda con el español de este lado de la línea)

Once upon a time, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants in the US did everything they could to keep their sons from learning to speak Spanish. A popular myth suggested that bilingual kids would speak English with a heavy accent. And such thing was a considered a hassle Mexicans couldn't afford, since they were still struggling to claim their civil rights.

Needless to say, back then tossing Spanish words in every day's lingo wasn't considered cool, nor Latinos were seen as hot. It was no time for J. Lo or Eva (Longoria, of course) and the column Ask a Mexican would've been consider cannibalism. It was time for César Chávez, whose mug shot taken from his profile on Wikipedia, accompanies this post.

In three-plus years living in Austin, I have gotten to know many Latino families whose parents, educated men and women in their mid-thirties, barely speak Spanish but are encouraging their sons to become fluent in this language. It is a way to retrieve their mother culture and be in touch with their roots, all over again. Retro-cultured families is how they are called.

Now that Latinos are taking on mainstream media and 'Hasta luego' has become the coolest way to say goodbye, Education still plays a key role when it comes to take pride of the mother language we come from. Many low-income or low-educated immigrants still try to encourage their kids to learn English first and foremost. They see learning Spanish as an obstacle, as if speaking it publicly would make them look 'more Mexicans', more vulnerable in that extent.
That may be because low-income Mexican immigrants know, either consciously or obliviously, that their chances to better their lot in the US are greater if they get English-fluent, an asset few of them are equipped with at their arrival. Many of them have seen many doors close before them as a result, and they don't want their kids to go through the same.

So, what happens to middle-and-upper-class Mexican immigrants in this case? Most of them come to the US on 'skilled worker' visas. That means, 1) they come here legally and, 2) they already speak English at their arrival. These two elements modify their experience as immigrants at all. Further, it also establishes the place Spanish takes at home.

My guess is many of these immigrants don't see themselves as permanent US residents in the future. They see this unexpected process of immigration as a temporary stage in their All-Mexican lives. So, some of them might prioritize an English-speaking atmosphere at home, because once back in Mexico, being fully English-fluent will be a great asset for their kids and, also, there will always be time later to bring back any Spanish word they might forget down the road. Others, by contrast, might prioritize a Spanish-speaking atmosphere as a way to keep their sons from becoming totally gringos, which is yet considered the ultimate nightmare of a Mexican chauvinist.

But there's also another scenario, where every Mexican middle-and-upper-class family that is looking for a green card fits: staying in the US for real, leaving the tag of Mexican niño or niña bien, and becoming, simply, a US Latino. What happens there? How are these families approaching la enseñanza del español? What does Spanish language represent to them?