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Language lost: How past discrimination is having a cultural impact on Latino communities

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Posted at 3:16 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 15:18:52-04

There are 41 million people in the United States who speak Spanish, making it the second most spoken language in the country.

For many people in Hispanic communities, it’s a big part of their identity. However, being bilingual hasn’t always been celebrated, even in regions of the country with large Hispanic/Latino populations.

Past language discrimination is impacting younger generations today.

Spanish is what connects many families to their roots, but the language hasn't always been passed down over generations.

In Texas, it’s not uncommon to hear Spanish spoken at the grocery store, restaurants or even on the job. In border towns like El Paso, Spanish is part of growing up and everyday life.

"My parents both spoke Spanish," said Bethany Rivera Molinar, an El Paso native.

"I grew up with my grandma speaking nothing but Spanish to me," said Carlos Gomez Baca, Jr., another El Paso native.

Although their parents and grandparents are fluent in Spanish, Baca and Molinar are not fluent. They can understand it but did not grow up speaking the language.

"When I'm expected to speak Spanish, I do feel like a deer in the headlights. I get paralyzed, I stop," Molinar said.

"In the home, it was mainly English," Baca said.

According to a Census Bureau data analysis by the Pew Research Center, 73% of Latinos spoke Spanish at home in 2015. The number dropped from 78% in 2006.

Reasons behind this may vary, but for some, it goes back decades, as Devon Lara learned from her grandmother.

"It was looked down upon in the United States when they were growing up, so they were often punished in school for speaking Spanish," Lara said.

A 1972 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed about a third of schools surveyed in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California had a “no Spanish” rule in the classroom.

"I think at its best form, that kind of state intervention was an attempt to normalize everybody," said Dr. Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. "You had families that were emphasizing this and were telling their kids, ‘This will mark you as different, so we don’t want you to mark yourself.’"

No schools admitted to physical discipline in the commission's survey. However, a commission hearing in San Antonio revealed student allegations of being slapped and even beaten for repeatedly speaking Spanish in the classroom.

Decades later, Molinar, Baca, Lara and others like them are facing a new type of criticism.

"I would be chastised and called out as a kid like all the way into adulthood – like, 'Don’t you care about your culture? You don’t speak Spanish. You’re not really Mexican,'" Molinar said.

The adults said the criticism often brings feelings of shame and embarrassment.

"It definitely stings a bit. You start to question yourself and like, 'Oh, am I Latina enough?'" Lara said.

"I have to say, 'You have to remember what your parents went through,'" said Delia Hernandez, a Spanish instructor at Language Plus in El Paso. "They wanted to, if not protect you, at least for you not to go through what they went through."

However, they're trying to turn things around.

Lara and Baca are taking Spanish classes at Language Plus with the hope of passing it down to future generations.

"For them to be able to acquire that and for me to able to give them that, it's wonderful," Hernandez said.

Molinar has enrolled her children in Spanish immersion school and day care. Others said they're considering doing the same in order to break down the language barrier for good.

"If I can get them to learn it, the more people they can help, the more people they can impact. The doors aren’t so limited as my doors were," Baca said.