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San Antonio Express-News

Is Spanish Dying? Speech Patterns In Region Raise Debate Among Linguists, Others

by John Davidson

January 14, 2001
© 2001 San Antonio Express-News. All Rights Reserved.

At first, Mary Ellen Garcia, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is emphatic: Spanish is dying in San Antonio. It comes down to basic numbers, she says. "Less than 10 percent of San Antonio's population was born in Mexico. That's not enough immigration to support the language."

Several weeks later in her office, she's somewhat more guarded -and with good cause.

To suggest that San Antonio is losing Spanish is heresy, tantamount to saying that San Antonio is losing its soul. Language, which we all take for granted, is the essence of identity, and Spanish is woven throughout the fabric of life in San Antonio.

The alleged demise of Spanish also defies common sense. Wherever you turn in San Antonio, you hear Spanish spoken - on the streets, in offices, in clubs, on radio and television. Spanish pervades the city like the rich smell of Mexican cooking.

Moreover, Spanish, once oppressed, has come into its own. Demographically, the Hispanic population in the Southwest is on its way to majority status . NAFTA has increased the importance of Spanish as a trade language, and more and more people are taking the trouble to learn Spanish. The prestige of Spanish and all things Latino has changed in just the last two or three years. In 1999, at one time, five of the top 10 songs on the radio were either in Spanish or by Latino artists.

So who is this woman, to suggest that Spanish is dying?

Sitting in her office, Garcia is imminently reasonable, professorial. She earned her Ph.D. at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Los Angeles, where she spoke Spanish until she was 5. When she started grade school, she lost Spanish, as did so many of her generation. She was monolingual in English until she made a point of learning formal academic Spanish, beginning in high school. She says that she is now fluent in both languages. She has been teaching at UTSA and studying Spanish in San Antonio for 12 years.

Cautious, if not guarded, she says, "The amount of maintenance is not enough. Successive generations are speaking greater and greater amounts of English."

When pressed as to Spanish's eventual demise, she nods. "Yes, there's a danger of that."

Garcia doesn't say it, but she has to know that she is treading on a land mine left over from the culture war that consumed San Antonio for much of its history. In this stage of accommodation, it is painful to be reminded of the cost of the old conflict. For Anglos, the death of Spanish is a legacy of guilt, of having caused irrevocable harm. For Mexican-Americans, it is more complicated and more painful.

Spanish can be a source of shame for Mexican-Americans in San Antonio. If they don't speak Spanish, they feel they should. And if they speak the Spanish they learned from their parents and grandparents, they dismiss it as pocho or Tex-Mex, as something inferior.

Ironic development

For generations, the Anglo establishment in San Antonio did its best to eradicate Spanish. Today, corporations are desperate for bilingual workers, and the city realizes that what it has to offer is Mexican-American culture, making the irony exquisite.

Garcia is not alone in her dire prediction about what linguists refer to as language shift. Garland Bills, a linguist at the University of New Mexico, makes a much more sweeping statement: "The Spanish language is being lost throughout the Southwest. The first generation born in the United States becomes dominant in English. The third generation typically doesn't speak Spanish at all. In major cities, this happens almost in the second generation."

"Face it, shift happens," Bills says, amused at his pun. "But Hispanics want to be in denial. They tend to think they'll learn Spanish at home, but it's not true. I'm astounded by the resistance to the idea."

"The language among these people who have been here for generations is dying out," concurs Eduardo Hernandez Chavez, a linguist and director of Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. "There is no danger of Spanish dying in the United States. Immigration will replenish it. But it is absolutely clear that as soon as children become bilingual, they don't use Spanish, and communities here aren't able to transmit it to succeeding generations. That has happened even here in New Mexico, where there is a history of 400 years of Spanish."

"It shows what happens to languages in contact," agrees Dale Koike, a professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the teaching of Spanish. "There's nothing we can do about it. It's natural evolution and the same thing is happening with Japanese in Los Angeles."

In defense of Spanish

"What world do these people live in?" demands Bambi Cardenas, director of UTSA's Hispanic Research Center.

"Those people are out of their minds," insists Adolfo Aguilar, the founder of Creative Civilization, an advertising agency that focuses on the Latino market. "The number of Spanish-language (radio) stations has gone from 76 to 600. Spanish media is flourishing in this country. Just last week, the Latin Grammys were on English-language television. This generation - America has woken up to the value of diversity. In San Antonio, there are three Spanish TV stations and seven radio stations."

"Yes, the number of Spanish speakers is growing in the United States," says Luis Plascencia, associate director at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas. "But the demographic transition doesn't play out as expected."

"San Antonio is predominantly Mexican-American," says Plascencia, who lived in San Antonio from 1978 to '80 while teaching at UTSA. "But since World War II, immigration to San Antonio has been low. Spanish is increasingly important in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For the last eight years, Dallas-Fort Worth has been the major site of entry for new immigrants to Texas. Before that, it was Houston. San Antonio hasn't been a significant magnet for new immigrants in some time."

"People generally think proximity to the border is important," Plascencia continues. "The answer is yes and no. I lived in Chicago for five years before moving to San Antonio, and I spoke Spanish 10 times more there than I ever did in San Antonio. Immigration to Chicago enforces the use of Spanish. Any store in the barrio in Chicago, if you look vaguely Hispanic, you will be addressed in Spanish. In San Antonio, the exact opposite is true. On the West Side, people address you in English. Spanish is not of great importance in actual practice. Symbolically people give lip service to Spanish, but it's difficult to find a large number of fluent speakers. Many people know phrases, but if you're talking about something like the media or the economy, people switch to English.

"Spanish-language radio stations in San Antonio are a misnomer. Only the exclamations are in Spanish. The rest is English."

No one knows exactly how many people in San Antonio speak Spanish, but according to the Nielsen survey, 31 percent of San Antonio Hispanic households are Spanish-dominant as opposed to 60 percent in Dallas, 57 percent in Houston, 59 percent in Chicago and 68 percent in Miami.

Emilio Nicolas Jr., vice president and general manager of Telemundo's KVDA-TV (cable channel 17), insists that the Nielsen ratings are wrong. Nicolas' grandfather started Spanish radio and TV in San Antonio. "Spanish speakers are the most likely to be undercounted," he points out. "San Antonio has the highest density of Hispanic population, but according to the Nielsen ratings, it has a lower percentage of Spanish-dominant households. The explanation given is that the Hispanic population here is multi-generational. But why is it different here? They don't know the reason!

"One of the things that impressed me when I moved back to San Antonio from Los Angeles (in 1993) was the amount of Spanish spoken in the streets. In the past, you literally got beat up for speaking Spanish. Now you hear it everywhere."

According to Nicolas, Spanish is supported in San Antonio not only by immigration but by a process he refers to as retro-acculturation.

"A lot of people who grow up in Spanish-speaking households shift to English in high school. In their 20s, they start coming back to their culture. They're born-again Hispanics. With most immigrant groups, conversion is purposeful and intentional. You don't see that as a common phenomenon with Hispanics. They attempted to knock culture out of us. Ever since the Alamo, they've failed to knock it out of us. We do not assimilate in that sense. We acculturate."

Punishment for speaking Spanish

Anyone who is an adult and Hispanic in San Antonio remembers or has heard stories about children in public schools being punished for speaking Spanish. The stories aren't exaggerated. Until 1969, it was a Class C misdemeanor for a teacher in Texas to use any language other than English as a language of instruction. The English-only law was passed after World War I. It was directed at Germans and German-Americans in Texas but was used more against Spanish-speakers.

"At Brackenridge Elementary, you couldn't speak Spanish," recalls Joe Bernal, a member of the State Board of Education and an adjunct professor at UTSA who teaches bilingual education. "If we said anything in Spanish, we would be spanked and put in the corner. They would tell us, 'You can't speak Mexican. You can't even speak Spanish. You speak something else.'

"At Lanier Junior High, to succeed you had to make a mental choice that was damaging to your psyche. You had to agree that all those people who had been massacred at the Alamo were heroes, and you had to accept that something was wrong with you and your culture. You lived with two languages and two cultures. When you went home, you were Mexican. If you spoke English, your mom and grandmother didn't understand you.

"I was a member of the student council at Lanier. On Mondays, we used to issue a ribbon that said, 'I'm a good American. I speak English.' Then as members of the student council we would monitor the halls, and if we heard someone speaking Spanish, we would turn them in, and they would get demerits and lose their ribbon.

"Many of us learned English very well. Our parents supported what they were doing at school. They would tell us, 'Those people are trying to do the right thing.' And they were, but there were a lot of dropouts."

The dropout rate in the 1960s was 80 percent for Spanish-speaking children in the Southwest. "Something very basic was happening," says Bernal. "They didn't know English. They would get retained three or four times in the first grade."

As a state senator, Bernal wrote the first bilingual act in Texas, which was passed in 1969. The act voided the English-only law, making it legal to instruct children in Spanish. Hispanics embraced bilingual education with open arms, but it was never intended to maintain Spanish. Its stated purpose was to transition students into English.

"Bilingual education was a total fraud on our people," says Chavez, the University of New Mexico linguist. "Thousands of our people were employed in bilingual education, but it was totally symbolic. In the late '60s, Chicano students were demanding that Spanish become the language of instruction in schools. What we got was bilingual education."

Language maintenance, however, was not an issue in the late '60s, at least not for the general Hispanic populace in the Southwest. Most Hispanics wanted to become American and didn't doubt that speaking English was the critical step. "Those were years when we were losing Spanish and not learning English," says Bernal. In the '60s, it would have been politically impossible to pass a Spanish-maintenance program in the Southwest.

Since then, the state's language policy has changed dramatically. Maria Seidner, director of bilingual education at the Texas Education Agency, says that the state has started promoting bilingualism. "Linguists really are right in saying that Spanish languishes," says Seidner. "The second and third generation generally are English speaking. Many don't speak Spanish unless they have ties to the home country. There's an economic advantage to being bilingual, and we're trying to enhance and encourage those skills."

The state's policy has changed so dramatically that it actually supports instruction in Spanish through "dual language" or "immersion" programs.

Bonham Elementary School started a dual-language program in 1995. Beginning in pre-kinder and kindergarten, the school strives for a 50-50 mix of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students in classrooms. For the first two years, 90 percent of instruction is in Spanish. As the children progress through second to fifth grades, more English is introduced until a 50-50 language mix is achieved. The goal is for the students to become completely bilingual and biliterate.

Dora Espiritu, Bonham's principal, describes it as a maintenance program for native Spanish-speakers. "We're concerned about the language going away," she explains. "A lot of the younger generations are losing Spanish through acculturation. Families move and children don't have tios and abuelitos to learn from." Ninety percent of the students at Bonham are Spanish-surnamed. Oddly enough, English-surname families were the first to ask for a dual-language program at Bonham.

Burleson Elementary in the Edgewood School District has a similar program. Principal Delma Luna says that many of the teachers are Latin American. "What we teach is academic, formal Spanish," she says. "Our goal is for students to be biliterate, bilingual and bicultural."

Cambridge Elementary in Alamo Heights has an immersion program in which children - all of whom are English-dominant - begin their education in Spanish. English is slowly introduced so that by the fifth grade they are bilingual and biliterate. Assistant principal Dan Bohlen says that it is common for children in other countries to learn in another language. The program is so popular that there is a lottery for admission. "Given the demographic reality, knowing Spanish will help kids in the future," says Bohlen. "It has to be textbook Spanish. It's certainly not Tex-Mex. It's good Spanish."

A painful, complicated topic

It's a Wednesday night at Club Giraud, and the 30 or 40 people gathered in a private dining room are elegantly dressed, the men in dark suits, the women fashionable. Almost everyone here is Hispanic. Doctors, lawyers, city councilmen, educators - these are leaders not just of the Hispanic community but of San Antonio. Some are Spaniards, some Mexicans and the rest Mexican-Americans.

Dr. Alfonso Chiscano is giving the dinner to introduce a representative of the Cervantes Institute and raise support to open a branch of the institute in San Antonio. The Cervantes Institute is somewhat like the Alliance Francaise; it is a cultural mission that teaches Spanish and promotes Spanish culture.

Chiscano grew up in the Canary Islands and came here in 1972 (after finishing his medical training in Houston) because San Antonio was founded by Canary Islanders. A cardiologist, he is a cheerful, big-hearted man who urges his friends and patients to call him Dr. Chico. He discovered after moving here that most Hispanic leaders couldn't follow a conversation in Spanish, that once the talk became technical or complicated they would ask to switch to English. He worried that his children weren't learning Spanish and that their teachers in school weren't trained properly to teach it. He was disturbed that so many Hispanics were scared to speak Spanish for fear that someone would laugh at them.

After Archbishop Flores gives the prayer - in English - and after dinner and a short speech by the guest of honor - again in English - Chiscano goes around the room asking various individuals what they think of his proposal to bring the Cervantes Institute to San Antonio. Though not asked to do so, almost everyone feels obliged to say whether they speak Spanish and at times, the evening seems somewhat confessional, a bit like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In a heartfelt way, City Councilman David Garcia says that he is still trying to master Spanish, that he is "always embarrassed" that he doesn't speak it.

Spanish is a particularly difficult and complicated topic for many Hispanics in San Antonio. They were damned when they spoke Spanish, and now they're damned when they don't.

Anglos, without thinking, refer to the local variety of Spanish as Tex-Mex, expressing the widespread assumption that Spanish here isn't good. "I think that's hogwash," said Cardenas of UTSA. "The Spanish that we speak in South Texas is very good Spanish. When we code switch (between English and Spanish), it's with purpose and intent. Any part of the world where there's contact, you will have the same sort of code switching. Devaluing the local usage is another way of devaluing the people and therefore many Mexican-Americans lack the confidence they used to have. They're led to believe that their Spanish is inferior."

Joe Bernal says that his Spanish stood him in good stead when he went to Chile after college on a student exchange program. "People in Santiago understood my Spanish. They understood me very well, and it was the Spanish I learned at home."

New language patterns defended

UTSA's Mary Ellen Garcia, and linguists in general, tend not to judge language and proceed on the assumption that what people speak and how they express themselves is valid. "It's a legitimate speech variety," she says of San Antonio Spanish. "Linguists see it as a contact language just like what you have in Los Angeles, Northern California, Miami and Puerto Rico. There's code switching, borrowing and syntactic interference from Spanish. You hear things like 'No le hables para atras a tu mama.' (Don't talk back to your mother.) Or 'llanta flateada.' (Flat tire.) But Spanish is also changing English. Languages are always changing."

Garcia conducted a study with fourth-generation students from the West Side who speak Spanish and observed what she describes as a "linguistic simplification across generations" or "linguistic attrition." The more complicated verb tenses had dropped out of the students' language repertoire so that they had difficulty talking about anything but the here and now.

Garcia says that, as with any system, it is a matter of "input and output," that Spanish speakers in San Antonio don't get enough input in terms of education and cultural experience to keep the language rich. Traditionally, schools in San Antonio haven't offered Spanish literature or history for native Spanish speakers. They didn't have the chance to read Cervantes or Garcia Lorca; their only option was to study Spanish as a "foreign" language, which would have been boring if not demeaning.

Currently, there isn't a commercial Spanish-language movie theater in San Antonio, nor is there a commercial Spanish bookstore. Garcia doubts that Spanish-language television is a meaningful source of linguistic enrichment for students. "Kids aren't going to tune into Univision for the news because they speak really fast and use words that people locally don't use. And there's really not much else to watch beside novelas and variety shows." Apparently, when young Hispanics turn on the television, they tune into "Friends" and "ER" like everyone else.

Garcia urges students to learn standard Spanish, stressing the economic advantages. But - and here's the painful twist - she says that it is actually more difficult for Hispanics who grew up with the local speech variety. This is an opinion that inflames some San Antonians, but it has been seconded by local teachers who specialize in teaching Spanish to Spanish-speakers.

Part of the difficulty is that the student has to unlearn or break old habits. And then there are psychological hurdles involved in trying to learn what you believe you're already supposed to know.

"When Mexican-Americans try to learn Spanish, it doesn't work," Eduardo Hernandez Chavez states unequivocally. "For Anglo Americans, speaking Spanish brings status . Al Gore and George Bush can incorporate Spanish into a speech, and everyone thinks it's wonderful. But if a Hispanic messed up that way, it would just expose his ignorance."

Kicked out of class

City Councilwoman Debra Guerrero has tried to learn Spanish as an adult and has had the ignominious experience of being kicked out of a Spanish class. "I recognize the importance of being bilingual. I've tried to be more fluent in Spanish, but just because you're this color," she taps her arm, "doesn't mean you speak Spanish.

"I took a class and I was completely intimidated. The teacher's attitude was, 'What happened to you?' There were three of us in the class, an Anglo and a Hindu, and I was the worst, so bad the teacher asked me to leave."

Guerrero, who is 33, grew up on the South Side. Her mother was fined a penny a word for every time she spoke Spanish in school. Neither of her parents encouraged her to learn Spanish, but she had to "have some understanding for chismes (gossip) about the family." Her parents emphasized the importance of English. For them, English and education were all but synonymous. When Guerrero went to Incarnate Word High School, she took French.

"My district is 60 percent Latino," said Guerrero, "but the voters are 60 percent Anglos. Anglos don't care if I don't speak Spanish, and Mexican-Americans don't care if they know that I'm listening to them. If they can touch me.

"I won't do Spanish media. I tried it against my better judgment. I went on the Frank Cortez show and I sucked. It was horrible. He turned off the tape and said, 'You know what? You were the worst I've ever had.' But it's difficult talking about air quality and contracts. Even fluent speakers have trouble. My tias were the most critical. 'Don't every do that again,' they told me. I must have really been bad."

When Guerrero ran for office, she was given a short list of old-line power brokers to call on and reassure that she wasn't a wild-eyed radical. "I was in a man's office," she recalled, "an older Anglo who has lived in San Antonio all of his life, and toward the end of the conversation he asked if he could ask me a personal question. I assumed he was going to ask why I wasn't married, but he wanted to know how I happened to speak English so well. I couldn't believe it. I'm a fourth-generation San Antonian.

"I travel to Latin America a lot on trade missions for San Antonio, and I always wish I spoke Spanish. I always think people are looking at me, wondering why I don't speak Spanish. I love to communicate, and I get disappointed in myself. But I'm from San Antonio. I'm fourth generation. English is the language."

A change of attitude

Is Spanish really dying? Is it too late?

There is no doubt that the public's attitude toward Spanish has changed radically. Those who insist that Spanish is well and thriving point to recent changes in educational policy, to dual-language and immersion programs, to the fact that companies are urging employees to learn Spanish, to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce's campaign to support bilingualism, to interest in the Cervantes Institute, and they insist that these are signs of vitality.

But do all of these same things not indicate that the cultural war between English and Spanish is over, that Spanish is simply no longer a threat? Dual-language and immersion programs are commendable, but the number of students involved is a tiny fraction of the number of students in San Antonio schools, and cannot be expected to reverse a three-generation concerted effort to eradicate the language.

"The history of language recovery is a history of failure," says Chavez. "Hebrew in Israel is the only exception. To revitalize and maintain Spanish, there would have to be profoundly radical changes. We would have to have cultural autonomy, control of our schools. Spanish would have to become the normal language of education. As is, we don't have the ability to transmit the use of Spanish to succeeding generations. It's not happening."

Mary Ellen Garcia is more sanguine about the future of Spanish. "People recognize the value of speaking Spanish to kids, but do the parents have the language skills? Parents feel guilty that their children don't speak Spanish, but it's not their fault. The people who determine what language you learn are your peers. Not your parents."

Garcia says that it's not necessarily too late to do something to save Spanish, that a wave of new immigration into San Antonio could revitalize the language.

But the thing to bear in mind is that when linguists talk about change, they're talking about change over generations, and all languages are in the process of change.

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