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The Hartford Courant

TV, Culture Drive Hispanic Assimilation

By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

March 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

Founded in 1957, House of Restoration was Hartford's first Hispanic church. But Sunday mornings at 11, the voices that now swell from its sanctuary pray and sing in English, not Spanish.

To prevent its younger members from melting away into suburban congregations, the church launched an English-language service seven years ago. It began with a handful of worshippers. By last year that number had hit 250, and attendance at the English service now tops 300 people most Sundays.

"I believe it's going to be my strongest service in a few years," said Bishop Jeremiah Torres, pastor of the 700-member church.

House of Restoration also has switched all religious education to English. It was the only way, Torres said, to reach all the children: Too many could not speak Spanish.

Casa De Restauracion is not alone. Even the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, at the center of Hartford's Hispanic community on Park Street, now runs its religious education classes about 80 percent in English.

"I ask them: Do you prefer to speak Spanish or English? It's English. English. English. English," said Julio Maturana, the head of religious education at Immaculate Conception. "I think it's their friends, the television, the schools. I think they can express in English their feelings more than in Spanish."

Amid the hubbub over the "Latinization of America," as Hispanics are rapidly supplanting blacks as America's largest minority group, many experts say another powerful trend has received less attention: the Americanization of Latinos, especially the young.

A generation of young Latinos - those in predominantly Hispanic urban areas as well as those in English-speaking suburbs - are increasingly bilingual or English-dominant.

Some parents, who trail their children in English ability, fear a cultural generation gap is opening.

Even if Spanish is the dominant language at home, Latino children and teenagers are more likely to watch English television such as the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon than Spanish programming on Telemundo or Univision.

By their third generation in the U.S., a majority of Latinos will marry a non-Latino.

Some young people, facing that choice right now, worry whether their children will be able to speak Spanish.

"It's the same immigrant story, retold in the 21st century, that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries," said Harry P. Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a California think tank that researches Latino issues. "It's another chapter in the book of immigrant America."

More Fluent

In fact, Hispanics may be adopting English even faster than the waves of European immigrants who came to the country in the early 20th century.

In 1990, 59 percent of Connecticut 5- to 17-year-olds who lived in Spanish-speaking homes reported that they could speak English very well, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A decade later, 68 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds who live in Spanish-speaking households in Connecticut told the Census Bureau that they spoke English very well. Even in Hartford, where Hispanics have become the largest ethnic group, the percentage of children and teenagers who live in Spanish-speaking homes but are fluent in English climbed to 66 percent in 2000, from 54 percent in 1990.

The trend is similar in the vast and growing Latino cultures of Los Angeles and New York City. The 2000 Census found that 66 percent of children and teenagers from Spanish-speaking households in New York, and 56 percent in Los Angeles, speak English fluently - up from 62 percent and 51 percent, respectively, since 1990.

"In spite of clarion calls that English is at risk ... the truth of the matter is that the rate of acquisition of English - that in prior waves of immigration would take two, three or four generations before the young became more English proficient - that language shift is occurring within one generation," said J. David Ramirez, director of the Center for

Language Minority Education & Research at California State University in Long Beach.

Ana Maria Olezza, director of bilingual education for the Hartford schools, sees a stable and then a declining bilingual enrollment in the future as English gains ground among young people.

"Contrary to what most people think, there is a very strong motivation for parents to have their children learn English," Olezza said.

Television Assimilation

As they walk home from school with their mother through Frog Hollow in Hartford, one of the most solidly Hispanic neighborhoods in Connecticut, Gloritza Moreno, 8, and her brother Angel Moreno, 7, are talking about their favorite television shows.

The family speaks Spanish and English at home, and Gloritza and Angel are as comfortable with one language as the other. But when the TV goes on, they favor shows like the Disney Channel's "Sister Sister," a show about African American twins who are reunited after living separate lives, and developing different personalities, since birth.

"I don't even like to hear Spanish music. I like English music. But I'm Spanish," says Gloritza, summing up the hopscotch ethnicity of her life.

Her favorite music, she admits shyly to her mother, Glory Figueroa, is reggae.

The European immigrants of the early 20th century, bunched together in ethnic urban enclaves, never had 75 cable television channels to make the sort of a la carte cultural selections Gloritza and Angel can make a century later.

And experts say television is a powerful force for assimilation.

Even in households where Spanish is the dominant language, children and teenagers choose English-language television by about a 60-40 margin over Spanish television, according to Nielsen Media Research. Their Spanish-speaking mothers and fathers, by a 2-1 margin, choose Spanish programs.

"The American media has assumed the only way to reach Latinos is through Spanish," Pachon said. "The reality is it's a bilingual audience."

Hiram Otero, a Hartford florist, worries that his kids spend so much time watching Nickolodeon, the Disney Channel and speaking English in school that they will never learn Spanish.

The dominance of English, and the pull of the dominant culture that goes with it, is hard to overcome, he said.

"I want to teach my kids. At home they speak Spanish," said Otero. But, "I've noticed that no, they don't want to speak Spanish."

Worshipping In 2 Languages

The French inscription above the door of the Immaculate Conception Church - Bonne Sainte Anne Priez Pour Nous - testifies to an earlier wave of immigration to Hartford from French-speaking Canada.

The French Canadians were supplanted by Latinos from Puerto Rico in the 1970s and 1980s, and during the 1990s, there has been a less visible change, as immigrant families from Latin American countries such as Peru, Colombia and Mexico have settled in Hartford.

Immaculate Conception now has Masses in French, Spanish and English and a bilingual service in English and Spanish.

But even if the church's religious instruction has been growing more English-dominant, Father James Lowery, pastor of Immaculate Conception, says he doesn't want English to supplant Spanish in the bilingual service.

"I feel as though it's important to keep the Spanish," said Lowery, who spent more than 20 years as a priest in Argentina. "When you grow up in the faith, you can lose your faith if you have to switch to another language."

At House of Restoration, which is building a new 1,500-person sanctuary on Main Street north of downtown Hartford, English is a way to ensure the church's continued growth.

"In order for the Hispanic church to survive as a strong church in the United States, we have to start doing English services," Torres said.

The English service, he said, "is my fastest growing service right now."

That service is attended, Torres said, by a younger generation of adults, predominantly in their 20s and 30s, who see their future in the United States, not Puerto Rico, a group who tend to be homeowners and well educated.

The content and music of the English and Spanish services are nearly identical, Torres said, but the atmosphere differs nevertheless.

"The feeling is different. The English service is lower key, less energy, the Spanish service is more vibrant - a happier service," Torres said. "The energy in the Spanish service is a lot different. I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but they pull it right out of you."

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