Language as a bridge and an identity


I was invited to speak on Sunday to a group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, and to their odd, tiny “classmate” -- a stuffed bear.

Like me, the children were all English speakers, born in the U.S. But the stuffed bear spoke only Spanish, the children’s teacher told me. So the kids and I chatted in espanol -- just so el oso wouldn’t feel left out.

“Buenos dias,” I said to the children, and they all answered back “buenos dias!” The bear kept quiet, however.


The “Spanish-speaking bear” is a little trick they use at the Grupo Educa weekend language school to get the kids to speak Spanish.

All the students there are members of Southern California families with roots in Latin America and Spain. Their bilingual parents are working zealously to keep the family Spanish alive -- despite the unstoppable daily wave of English that comes at them from television and films, and in classrooms and playgrounds.

“I don’t want my children to lose their ability to speak a second language,” said Rey Rodriguez, a 46-year-old entertainment executive whose two sons attend the Pasadena weekend school. “If you don’t speak Spanish, the doors to your past and to your identity start to close.”

Rodriguez, a native of El Paso, and his wife, Vivian Godoy, speak Spanish to their children every day. “It’s a religious thing with us,” Rodriguez said. And for three hours every Sunday, they and 30 other families gather their children in a Grupo Educa classroom to sing songs, count, converse and read and write in the language of their ancestors.

It might seem a strange thing, a weekend school to keep Spanish alive in a city where so many people speak the language. A lot of people in L.A. feel surrounded by Spanish. It’s there on the radio, on the streets, and can even sneak up on the telephone: “For English, press one. Para espanol, oprima dos.”

But the truth is that in many immigrant families Spanish begins to disappear after just a generation. Monica Robles, a 29-year-old Guadalajara native and teacher at the school, has seen this among her L.A. relatives from Mexico.

“I have all these cousins who are basically monolingual in Spanish,” Robles told me. “But all their kids are monolingual in English. They can barely communicate with each other.”

It actually takes a certain stubbornness to pass on Spanish to your kids in L.A. A lot of people here can say they understand the language -- thanks, in part, to the proliferation of Spanish media -- but struggle when forced to speak it.

I know, from experience, that a second language is like a mental muscle that will turn flabby if you don’t use it on a regular basis.

The first words I spoke were in Spanish. At 5, I was still fluent. But at 17, after a dozen years of only English in local public schools, I spoke Spanish like a 4-year-old.

When I went to college and mastered Spanish at age 20, worlds opened up to me. I had my first real conversations with my Guatemalan grandparents. Today, Spanish is essential to my profession -- I’ve interviewed peasants and presidents in the language.

Now my two sons are going through their own Spanish battles. I took them to Latin America after landing a job as a foreign correspondent in 2001 -- they became fluent Spanish speakers. But their last day of school in Mexico City was 15 months ago. All those crazy castellano verb conjugations are starting to mix them up.

“Talk to them in Spanish,” my father tells me.

I do. But they always answer me in English.

Esther Garcia-Sutter and eight other parents were feeling similarly frustrated back in 2003 when they joined together at a Pasadena library for a Spanish play group. Most were from Spain and had ties to Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

They looked around for institutions that help keep Spanish literary and language traditions alive and found none. “We decided we had to do something,” Garcia-Sutter told me. Eventually their informal gathering evolved into a school.

Now it’s a European and Latin American mix at Grupo Educa. The parents pay for three trained teachers who try to find a neutral center between the language’s many regional dialects. They also bring Spanish-speaking professionals to speak to their children, in part to address what many at the school call the “stigma” associated with Spanish in California.

“As soon as my son went to preschool, all of his buddies were speaking to him in English,” Rodriguez recalled. “English was powerful. And Spanish was for the people cleaning up the school.”

It seems odd that the language of Cervantes and Neruda would be considered a second-rate tongue. But that’s the reality of L.A.

Here, English is the language of success, while Spanish is the language of hard labor. Some people run away from it as fast as they can.

A small minority would like to erase Spanish from the city’s life. That would be a grave mistake.

Spanish adds to our collective cultural sophistication, along with Korean, Mandarin and many more languages. Those tongues and the people who speak them make us a more cosmopolitan and economically competitive city.

And being connected to the language of your ancestors is good for the soul. Robles says she sees the impact of not knowing Spanish on some of her relatives. “They don’t know where they come from, or where they’re going,” she said.

By contrast, the young students in the advanced class at Grupo Educa seemed very confident and proud of themselves. “You’re all bilingual,” I told them.

“I’m trilingual,” a 7-year-old girl named Ines told me in Spanish. “I speak Farsi too.”

I told them I was a “periodista” and asked if they knew what that meant.

Ines answered, in perfectly enunciated Spanish: “It means you deliver the paper.”

Well, some journalists do deliver the paper, I said. But I write for the paper. “Escribo.”

I explained that sometimes I write things and the people who read my stories laugh. “A veces rien.” And sometimes they cry. “A veces lloran.”

And sometimes my readers get so angry with me -- “se enojan tanto” -- that they say ugly things to me. “Me dicen cosas feas.”

One of the boys laughed at the word for “ugly.” Then he made up several sentences with the Spanish word for “ugly.” Feo.

I was impressed. We talked a bit more, the kids never feeling the need to fall back to English.

Listening from the back of the classroom, their parents were very proud indeed.