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Taking Spanish Is As Hot As Salsa For Latinos Who Never Learned Their Ancestral Tongue


DECEMBER 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001

Actor Erik Estrada did it. So did pop star Christina Aguilera.

So what were these Latino icons up to? Learning a foreign language: Spanish. Across the U.S., many people who trade on their Hispanic roots are facing the uncomfortable fact that they probably know no more than a few dozen Spanish words -- and two of them are "Los Angeles."

This growing group, many of whom are second- and third-generation Americans, lost their ancestral language as the advantages of assimilation and English fluency were drummed into them. Now that the U.S. is consumed by a rage for everything Hispanic, these Latinos are discovering they must talk the talk -- or at least be able to fake it.

After all, salsa music is hot and guayabera shirts are in. The Mojito, a concoction of Cuban rum, sugar and mint that was unknown a couple of years ago, racks up as much as 20% of cocktail sales on busy nights at Seattle's Waterfront Pier 70 restaurant, according to the bar manager. This year, Jennifer Lopez had the nation's No. 1 movie, single and album, all at once. It's hardly the time to have to admit, "Sorry, no hablo Español."

Oliver Velez, 35 years old, rides around New York's Westchester County in his BMW, listening to Berlitz Spanish-language tapes and practicing Spanish phrases. The chairman and chief executive of Pristine Capital Holdings, a financial-services company, still smarts from his experience a year ago, when he stood in front of television cameras to open a new office for his company in Venezuela.

"Why did you pick Venezuela to start operations in Latin America?" a reporter asked in Spanish.

Mr. Velez didn't understand the question. "I'm really sorry," he said, watching surprise spread over the faces of those present, "but I don't speak Spanish."

Assimilation is largely responsible, says Reynaldo Macias, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Even as the Hispanic population grew 58% to 35 million in the 1990s, census data also showed that a third of Hispanics married non-Hispanics. According to the 1990 census, the latest period for which such figures exist, about a quarter of Hispanics reported speaking only English.

The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, in Exton, Pa., offers a new handbook to guide those teaching so-called inherited speakers of Spanish, some of whom can understand Spanish but can't speak it. Textbook publishers have also taken notice, with several new books aimed at students with Hispanic backgrounds.

At Berlitz International Inc. in Princeton, N.J., John Bennett, president of North American operations, says Spanish now accounts for about a third of the company's foreign-language enrollment. Hispanics such as Michael Morales, a 36-year-old financial adviser in New York, constitute a growing chunk of that. Mr. Morales says he takes Spanish lessons so he can get an edge on competitors -- and stop fumbling through meetings of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Jersey City, N.J., where he has focused his Latino business efforts. As a child, he says, he resisted learning Spanish from his Puerto Rican parents so he wouldn't stand out in his predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.

Common Expressions

At a Berlitz Language Center in Manhattan recently, Mr. Morales sat in a bare room with three other students, listening to instructor Arturo Espina drill them on common expressions. "Estoy sentado," Mr. Espina said, repeating for effect, then translated: "I am seated."

"I'm confused," Mr. Morales said, breaking the rule against speaking in English during the class. "When I was a kid I thought 'to sit' was 'sientate.' I heard that a lot." In Spanish, Mr. Espina explained the difference between being seated and being told to sit down.

Dolly Espinal, a 32-year-old television consultant in New York, says her generation was the first in the history of her family, which has been in New Mexico since it was a Mexican territory, that couldn't communicate in the ancestral tongue. "I feel ashamed," Ms. Espinal says. This summer, Ms. Espinal hired a tutor to improve beyond what she calls "kitchen" Spanish.

Ms. Espinal claims her interest in Spanish has helped her career. She landed consulting work to help guide the ethnic and educational content on the animated cable-television show "Dora the Explorer," which uses a bilingual Hispanic girl to, among other things, teach preschoolers that it is good to be bilingual. The show airs on Nickelodeon, one of the channels in Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks.

Even some in the older generation, once insistent that their sons and daughters stick to English, are coming around. Steven Lopez, an engineer of Mexican descent in Phoenix, Ariz., says his parents "thought there was no reason to speak Spanish because it would only bring the hardships that they had."

Making Dad Proud

Recently, he surprised his father by calling him and speaking in Spanish, which he has learned since beginning classes over the summer. "I'm very proud," says his father, Estevan Lopez. "When I was a boy, if you were caught speaking Spanish in the playground, some of the teachers would pick you up by your hair."

Ms. Aguilera boosted her record sales this year by learning enough Spanish to re-record some of her English-language hits for Latin audiences. Her Spanish-language album, "Mi Reflejo," has sold three million copies, on top of the 12 million her English-language record sold. Ms. Aguilera's father is from Ecuador, but she was raised in her American mother's English-only household after her parents divorced.

Mr. Estrada, who became famous playing a motorcycle patrolman in the 1970s television show "CHiPs," did Spanish-language advertisements at the height of his fame -- but the voice of a Spanish-speaking actor had to be dubbed over his English. All that changed in 1993, when he won a lead role on the Mexican television soap opera, "Dos Mujeres, Un Camino" ("Two Women, One Direction").

After 30 days of eight-hour lessons with a tutor, Mr. Estrada went to Mexico, immersing himself in the language to prepare for his new role. "At the beginning, people were laughing at me, because I didn't speak well," Mr. Estrada says. The solution to his "gringo Spanish" problem, he says, was to write into the script that he was born in Mexico, but moved to San Diego.

Now, his Spanish has improved so much that he's doing beer commercials and infomercials in Spanish -- no dubbing needed.

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