By Fernando Zapata
Published by The News-Press
on August 28, 2006
My 10-year old, Mexican-born son, Cesar, loves "The Simpsons."
Every afternoon, while I drive him home from school, he insists on telling me the details of Homer's latest exploits.
All while laughing, of course.
I smile and laugh along. Although, I have to confess, I understand very little of what my son says.
Cesar re-creates all the Simpsons' misadventures for me — often imitating their voices — totally in English.
For me, someone raised in a Latin American country, Cesar's accent, his mannerisms, and his very sense of humor are a little bit too ... American.
My wife and I speak English. But at home, we insist — to Cesar's disappointment — on speaking only Spanish.
When possible, we change the mode of all the DVD movies, and TV channels to Spanish.
At the same time, we do our best to correct Cesar's sloppy accent and sudden fits of Spanglish.
We do our best to keep Spanish alive in Cesar and our 2-year-old son, Eric.
But at the same time, we have a similar, yet vastly opposite struggle outside home.
At school, we are adamant about our kids learning perfect English.
And we argue with teachers and school administrators who insist in placing them in "bilingual" classes, because "it's good for them."
We don't want that. We want our children to speak English, without losing Spanish.
For Americans, this may sound like a contradiction. And in many regards it is.
But for the majority of us Hispanic immigrants the issue is simple: We speak Spanish at home, but we understand we are in the United States.
And we want our kids to be American.
My small bilingual issue, though domestic, is reflected on a national level too: There is a huge debate on the topic.
Strangely, this debate is not between pro-Hispanic groups against anti-Hispanic organizations.
No, it's among Hispanics themselves: It's about those who want to keep their cultural roots, and see Spanish as the second — or perhaps the only — official language of the United States, against those who want to learn English and assimilate into the mainstream.
Oddly, the former group is composed of American-born citizens, while the latter are, usually, recent immigrants. Powerful Latino groups like MECHA (in English, Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan) and — to a lesser extent — LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), use Spanish and bilingual education as political cards to lobby for their national agendas.
The leaders of these Hispanic organizations — most of them American citizens from many generations back — speak only English at home.
Their Spanish is often awkward, to say the least.
On the other hand, we, the recent immigrants, while not fluent yet in English, remain on the opposite side of the debate.
Yes, most of us speak Spanish at home, but strongly insist that our language not be left out.
And we know the best way to succeed is by learning the national language, English.
Look at the studies
I am not an expert here. However, as a parent, I still find something disturbing about having my kids being taught in separate classes and in a different language than the rest of the American students.
I want them to have the same opportunities as everyone.
And I am not alone.
Some studies reflect this trend among Hispanic immigrants.
A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation between 2003 and 2004 found that 92 percent of Latinos —native and foreign-born — believed teaching English to children of immigrant families was "very important."
Remarkably, only 87 percent of whites, and 83 percent of African-Americans, have this same opinion.
The difference is even wider among Hispanics themselves: Only 88 percent of the U.S.-born, English-speaking Hispanics considered this topic "very important."
In contrast, 96 percent of foreign-born, Spanish-speaking Latinos answered favorably.
Contrary to popular belief (and the alarming claims by ultra-conservative talk-radio hosts) Hispanics do assimilate.
Moreover, we are assimilating at a faster pace than past immigrants did.
A paper by the Population Reference Bureau released last June, stated that "historically this transition took three generations. ... Today, however, more first- and second-generation Americans are becoming fluent in English." The study also found that a staggering 99 percent of second-generation immigrant children in public schools of San Diego and Miami spoke fluent English, while less than one-third kept fluency of their parents' tongue by the age of 17.
Melting pot alive
As a parent, I don't need studies to know what's going on: I see it every day at home, with Cesar and Eric.
But also with nephews, nieces and friends' children — all whose parents are first-generation immigrants, like us.
We teach our kids about their parents' home countries.
And we feel excited when our children say they had a great time on their Mexican (or Salvadorian, or Peruvian) vacations, visiting their "abuelitos" (grandparents) and "amigos" (friends).
But we immigrants want our kids to be Americans. That's why we came here in the first place. If we wanted them to be Mexicans, we would have remained there.
And we know English is the language of this land.
Even relatives in our home countries know it: The first thing they ask us when we visit is: "So, have you learned English yet?"
Cesar knows it, too. He can't understand why we force him to speak, listen to and write Spanish. For him, "English is way cooler."
As I said before, the "Melting Pot" is alive and well.
Despite all those Americans who have lost faith in it.