By the end of our time in Lima, the children were speaking a Spanglish blend. The television and I were their sources of English, and everything else (family, friends, preschool, public) was in Spanish. Although the youngest wasn’t in preschool yet, all three had a slight bias toward Spanish.
In fact, that bias was only slight after I bought a smart television which could beam in English-language programming from Netflix and YouTube, which I bought specifically because the boy had no English competency to speak of.
Fast forward to my repatriation in 2019 and the oldest was slated for ESL classes in the public school. But that didn’t last long. In just a couple months all three made a complete conversion to English. With only their mother giving them a daily dose and the television remaining in English, their worlds became almost 100% English.
And that’s how they like it.
I know the boy understands some of what his mother and I say when we’re talking to each other, but he doesn’t speak. Naturally, he needs to say the words if he is to “speak Spanish.” Worried about raising children who are not bilingual, I have occasionally tried to get the family into a Spanish-speaking groove. One time while driving the car, I explained to the boy why it’s important.
“I don’t even speak Spanish. I don’t want to speak Spanish. I HATE Spanish!”
The resistance is fierce. It makes me wonder if the effort is futile.
It’s Not Just Mine
My boy is not alone.
We occasionally attend the birthday parties of a Mexican-American family I’ve known for over 20 years, and they have a litter of children around the same age as mine. While they’ve never lived in Latin America, these children hear all Spanish at home. So when we go over there, my idea is to get the children playing in Spanish.
One day I’m talking to one of the boys who is around the same age as my boy.
“Esta es tu pelota de futbol?” I asked him.
“I don’t like that,” he replied.
He wasn’t talking about the ball. He was talking about language. And that was a conversation stopper. No more attempts at Spanish with those children.
I’ve seen this a lot since then. The immigrant parents came here for a better life and are working their tails off, legally or illegally, in various industries, and without exception the children grow up American. They refuse to speak Spanish. They want to talk like they do at school with their friends, like their favorite television shows and the athletes and celebrities they admire, who are all American.
Maybe this is common knowledge for gringos who grew up in California or Florida, but St. Louis was later to build a strong Hispanic community. So I just saw it with my own eyes for the first time as a repat.
And it jibes with the American immigrant story. The Polish, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Iranian immigrants have this one thing in common. Their children are not very Polish, Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Iranian. They want to be Americans like their friends. Before the 21st century flavors, the children of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants wanted to play baseball, eat hamburgers and listen to rock and roll. Circle of life.
It’s Not Just the Children
The Hispanic community may be a little different from the rest in that not only the children, but the ESL adults themselves often refuse to speak Spanish. Given our geographical proximity to Latin America, they make up an outsize share of total immigrants, especially those without valid visas.
Those Hispanic immigrants who are here illegally, and therefore at risk of deportation at any given moment, develop a kind of shield from living underground. They are careful not to come off as undocumented immigrants. They want to seem like they’re from here, so they speak English.
A crew of workers were fixing the roof on my office building last month. They were up there for a week, and at times loud enough that it was difficult to focus. So I blasted reggaeton, salsa and even cumbia.
I wasn’t just drowning out the noise of their tools. I was in part seizing the opportunity to blast Spanish music, which I am not always eager to do in public here in the red state.
It was also a way of communicating to them that somebody downstairs understands what they’re saying, so cut the jabber and finish this building so you can move on to the next.
Finally, it was a personal jab at the ethnocentrism of Mexican and Central American immigrants, who seem to listen exclusively to Mexican vaquero music. It’d be the equivalent of blasting for American rednecks hip hop, R&B, blues and a little punk rock. It put them a little outside their comfort zone so they’d focus on work.
One day, something they did cut off my internet. So I had to go introduce myself. After climbing the ladder and conducting a brief investigation, I learned that they had moved my satellite dish. It was never disconnected and they put it back where it was, but the signal was so weak that it was lost. A technician would have to get it going again. This internet service was so poor to begin with that I just canceled the service, something I had pondered many times and was long overdue.
Over the course of this episode, during which I climbed up to the roof on three different days, I noticed a peculiar dynamic with the workers. Most kept mum. When someone would engage, the foreman would often hurry over and continue in English, and the worker would shrink into the background.
This foreman told me he has lived most of his life in St. Louis and his English was at least as good as my Spanish. So it wasn’t like in Latin America where the locals insist on speaking English because they are (A) trying to practice their English without paying for it, (B) indicate their education / status, (C) treat you like a tourist or (D) all of the above.
That is especially annoying when their English is inferior to your Spanish, slowing things down. But that is not what was at play here in Missouri.
In this case, I think the foreman is trying to demonstrate his Americanness but, more importantly, screen the complete lack of English among the crew, who are probably all undocumented. I don’t think this was a new act. I think it’s standard operating procedure, an explicit rule that the foreman does the talking and the crew keeps their mouths shut around us gringos.
This shed light on why the cashiers in Mexican groceries and restaurants often do the same. They won’t respond in Spanish. This isn’t the case at house parties, which imply mutual friends and social networks. But in public it’s happened so many times that I’ve gotten shy about even attempting Spanish with people.
It’s a little disconcerting after having adopted Latin America’s cordial disposition to strangers. You’re tempted to scold them (gringo frio!), but you have to remember they are in a very different situation than we were in Latin America. They could be removed at any moment. Imagine living your life for years like that.
On top of that, the political discussion of the last five years has been less than welcoming (to put it nicely), to Hispanic immigrants specifically. These are the times of keeping a low profile.
Still another difference is the sheer number of Hispanics here vs. gringos in Latin America. Whenever you meet another gringo in Lima or Bogota, provided you’re outside the tourist district, you have to meet and greet and get the story. Somos paisanos! That doesn’t happen every day.
Not the case for Hispanics here. There isn’t room for that comradery with so many compatriots.
Maybe noteworthy that I’ve had the opposite experience in New York, where the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are pleased to go back and forth en español. However I have felt that hesitance in South Florida, believe it or not. Don’t know if that’s typical or an anomaly.
But in the heartland where the Hispanics are predominantly Mexican and Central American, they want to speak English.
I used to see t-shirts and bumper stickers that say, “Welcome to America, now speak English!” I don’t know if there are social-justice warriors in blue states with swag saying the opposite, to the effect of, “Bienvenidos a EEUU, está bien hablar en castellano.”
There’s a free idea for you enterprising solopreneurs, maybe worth as much as it cost!
In the meantime, I haven’t a clue how to reverse the trend of my children losing their Spanish. I believe the elementary school has kept the boy in ESL just to juice the numbers or test scores, to show off a completely English-fluent student from Latin America. Because he doesn’t need ESL. Hell, he doesn’t speak Spanish!
Wife doesn’t push the Spanish too hard. She just wants to communicate in a way that gets results, which is about 50-50 but never demands they respond in anything but English. I’m the only one trying to get them to speak.
The dream was to have children who speak both languages without accent in either. Marco Rubio is an example. Today I’d be fine with an accent. I just want them to be bilingual, and I’m running out of ideas beyond the old children’s playlist.
Ideas? Leave us a comment.
Here’s my playlist for annoying the Hispanic cowboys: