By: Dr. Julio Torres
“What does it take to realize
that being Boricua
is a state of mind
a state of heart
a state of soul…”
Ode to the Diasporican by Mariposa
On my path to becoming a vegetarian, many fellow Boricuas (family, friends, students) are left shocked. Not eating meat of course means that I do not eat pasteles or pernil during the holidays. Upon hearing this in class – while discussing Latina/o identity – one of my Puerto Rican students so worriedly said, “Ay bendito, ¿en serio?”, as if I had been diagnosed with some incurable disease. She proceeded to say that she had never met a Boricua who did not eat meat (even though I know many Puerto Rican vegetarians). This reaction to my culinary lifestyle change has led me to sometimes question my Boricuaness. But many U.S. Puerto Ricans face a greater stigma that challenges their Boricua identity – their inability to speak Spanish or “hablarlo bien matao’ .”
Let’s consider context. Despite the fact that the United States has the second-largest population of Spanish speakers (after México), the trend is that Spanish is usually almost, or completely, lost by the third generation of immigrants.
It is the influx of newcomers from Spanish-speaking countries that keeps the language so alive and vibrant in the US, rather than established Latina/o communities. In addition, bilingual education has been seen como el cuco in the US, and the policy has been to get the children of newcomers to sink or swim in English immersion at the cost of their first, or community, language.
As a young kid starting the 8th grade, (we returned to NYC from la isla, where we had moved from Brooklyn two years earlier), I vividly remember the opinions of relatives who thought I should be placed in mainstream English classes because I was proficient in the language. Their concern was that me iba a hacer daño a bilingual education. Now, I understand that this was a result of the faulty thinking of the time, (that persists to this day in many cases, unfortunately), that raising children bilingual is harmful. Fortunately, for me, en casa it was sink or swim in Spanish. Also, the English-Only movement has plagued some communities throughout the country, with the goal of making English, unnecessarily, an official language. Living in Allentown, Pennsylvania, I remember an ordinance passed in 1994 declaring English the official language of the city. This ordinance mandated all local government affairs be conducted in English. These policies are a recipe for hindering the opportunities for our Puerto Rican (and other Latino) children to maintain su español. But one may ask why would it be important to maintain our children’s Spanish, if we now live in the U.S., anyway?
One obvious answer is to maintain ties with our loved ones who still live in la isla. It is always nice that when we return to Puerto Rico, we can communicate with ease with our relatives. However, no hay que ir tan lejos, maintaining Spanish may be also crucial for communicating at home. In my current job, I have the pleasure of teaching Spanish courses to university Latina/o students. It is heartbreaking to listen to anecdotes of students expressing how they are unable to talk with their parents or caregivers about serious topics (e.g., future career goals) because they lack the vocabulary or grammar to communicate their ideas well in Spanish. My students share that this leads to frustration and creates conflict in the household due to misunderstandings.
Another issue is that, while our school systems tend not to support our children’s Spanish throughout their early education, we expect them to study it as a foreign language in high school and college. Spanish teachers and professors are oftentimes unprepared to appropriately address the learning needs of these students. My own research examining the (re)-learning of Spanish among U.S. Latina/o youth suggests that they approach learning tasks differently from their Anglo peers. It is not surprising that many educators have expressed their dismay at the poor performance of these students in class given that they’re using the same methodology to teach these students. I hear stories of how students are either so ashamed of their Spanish or are resistant to learn the classroom variation. This is such a disservice to our young people. At the beginning of the semester, my students undergo linguistic therapy to repair some of this damage. My hope is that they embrace their linguistic diversity, and have a realistic notion of what it means to be a bilingual.
It is a given that our children’s dominant language will most likely be English. It’s ok. We should not view being bilingual as two ideal native speakers meshed into one. That should not be the goal. Our aim should be to increase the opportunities for our children to use their Spanish, and maintain the highest possible degree of bilingualism. This will lead to favorable outcomes personally and professionally for them. As Diasporicans, we need to address how much we value maintaining the bilingual status of our community And, if we value it, what are the necessary steps we need to take to accomplish this? Especially, since our Latina/o leadership in Washington has been clearly mute on this issue. One promising answer is the opening of dual-language schools in communities that promote literacy skills in both languages. Also, our centros comunitarios can get involved in raising awareness of these issues among our parents.
Maintaining our bilingual status as a community in this country is like swimming contra la corriente, to quote Marc Anthony’s song title. So, let’s stop questioning the “Boricuaness” of our herman@s who do not speak Spanish or lo hablan matao’, bendito. Just as two bilinguals are not alike, two Boricuas are not alike tampoco. My Boricua pride and love have not changed because I no longer eat pasteles or pernil. Eso lo llevo en la sangre y en el corazón.
Julio Torres is a Boricua born in Puerto Rico who identifies more with the Nuyorican experience. He has lived mostly in NYC and Allentown, Pennsylvania. He keeps close ties with his Puerto Rican family in la isla as well as his Nuyorican relatives. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Hispanic and Italian Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY. His research focuses on cognitive approaches to second language acquisition and bilingualism. He earned his Ph.D. in Spanish Linguistics from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.