¿Hablas Spanish?: The Linguistic Culture of Bronx Puerto Ricans
Jessica Garcia and Kristin Nieves-Ferreri
Jessica Garcia and Kristin Nieves-Ferreri
Upon leaving the entrance of any given train station in The Bronx, one can immediately hear Salsa music blaring from an open car window or storefront boom box. The smell of lechon asado fills your lungs with every breath as you listen to the harmonious voices of the people around you speaking Spanish all at the same time. Looking in all directions it is not hard to find this community's symbol of pride and pure love for their homeland- the Puerto Rican flag waving gracefully in the wind.
New York has always been considered the gate of opportunity to immigrants all over the world, this includes the citizens of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have been immigrating to New York since 1838, before they were even granted United States citizenship (Hosay 40). Since then the number of Puerto Ricans moving to the Bronx has taken an interesting turn. In 1910 only 500 people of Puerto Rican descent maintained residences in New York City (Hosay 40), this number skyrocketed to an astounding 817,000 in 1970, of those about 40 percent of them lived in the Bronx according to Philip M. Hosay in his essay "The Puerto Rican Experience." The Bronx continued and continues to be a very dense region of Puerto Ricans despite the lowering numbers. According to the 2000 census, 57 percent of Hispanics in New York State live in the borough of The Bronx, and 319,000 of them are Puerto Ricans. This is down from the 1990 census when the Puerto Rican population of The Bronx was 349,115.
The Puerto Ricans of The Bronx do not seem to be discouraged or even affected by the low numbers ever since their arrival to the mainland and they continue to participate in their rich culture despite mainstream America's view that non-English speakers should fully assimilate into American culture. This is most likely due to the strong presence that they have throughout most of The Bronx and the lack of other ethnic groups in Puerto Rican neighborhoods.
Like in many other cultures, language is an extremely important aspect of Puerto Ricans' ethnic identity. Being of Puerto Rican descent and having grown up in The Bronx, we can speak from experience when we say that it is extremely difficult to escape encounters with the Spanish language. When one is Puerto Rican it is almost expected to have some sort of Spanish language background, if not one is often mocked by other Puerto Ricans of all age groups. For example, Stephanie is a twelve-year-old Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx who recalls a time when her Puerto Rican heritage was questioned. She grew up speaking Standard English and knew only a few words in Spanish. Stephanie recalls telling one of her friends one day that she was Puerto Rican, but he didn't believe her saying "but you don't speak Spanish, you can't be Puerto Rican." Many of her physical traits are that of a typical "White girl", light blue eyes, white skin and she has what is known as "good hair" (the texture of "good hair" is less coarse and often straight or wavy as opposed to tight, kinky curls). Her identity was never questioned because of her physical traits but rather because of her lack of ability to speak Spanish. This is proof of just how much Puerto Ricans value their language and identify themselves with their speech. Paca in Ana Celia Zentella's Growing Up Bilingual says "Spanish [is] crucial 'if you Puerto Rican, you SHOULD know it, because that's their blood, because that's what they are. They should learn." ( 146)
When visiting The Bronx, Spanish is inescapable; it is on the radio, in the stores and on the streets. Even if you are speaking English to a Bronx Puerto Rican, many times they will respond back to you in Spanish, especially if you are of Latino descent. When Jessica, a dark skinned, or triguena, Puerto Rican woman walked into a Bronx clothing store, she asked the saleswoman if there was a fitting room in English. The saleswoman responded "No, porque no puede medir las camisas" she was completely confident that Jessica would have understood her despite the fact that they have never conversed in Spanish before this encounter. Karen Pedrosa, director of basketball operations and recreation specialist, at Roberto Clemente Park reveals that many of the Spanish-speaking children that go to the park are of Puerto Rican descent and speak little to no English at all. She explains that "these kids are straight off the boat" and despite attending bi-lingual classes their English skills are still minimal. This is most likely the result of a lack of education and proper training in many Bronx schools.
Many of the schools throughout The Bronx are not up to par, there seems not to be any logical reason for this but it is a sad reality. In the words of one Bronx schoolteacher who worked within the school system for eighteen years "Bronx schools stink." The New York City's Board of Education's Chancellor report for the year 2000 report that 15 percent of all New York City public school students are in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, of them 26 percent are Latinos. Ms. Rosemary Nieves explained that the ESL programs are "maintenance programs" meaning that the programs are not designed to teach English but rather enhance the skills that the students already have. "Half the classes are taught in English and half the classes are taught in Spanish...[since] they will be tested in Spanish." Karen Pedrosa "[knows] kids who have been left back two years in a row because of their [lack of] English.... it's terrible." The majority of ESL classes in The Bronx are filled with Hispanic students, and even those students who are not of Spanish descent or linguistic background, will learn Spanish as their second language over English. This re-enforces the idea expressed by Ofelia Garcia in her essay "Multilingualism: World languages and their role in a U.S. City" that many times immigrants will learn a language other than English before they learn English, if they ever do in fact learn English at all (6). The language which they will learn is dependant upon the neighborhood they are living in and the language that those people speak. The way in which it is determined whether or not a child should enter into an ESL class is through a lab test, in which the child takes a written and oral exam, and depending upon their scores, the child will either be placed in mainstream classes or ESL. Those children that are in mainstream classes are English dominant even if they are of Latino heritage.
Puerto Rican Influence on Bronx Life
Walking down the streets of Westchester Avenue, we encountered many Chinese fast food restaurants which have become the staples of the Puerto Rican culture. Most of these Chinese owned restaurants are run by people who are of Chinese descent, but can speak enough Spanish and English to maintain their businesses. Although these people carry their own accents, they still manage to open doors between themselves and their customers by gaining basic language skills and communicating to their customers in the tongue which suits them most. Within these places of business, we came to find that 99 percent of them were in a transitional phase of cultural assimilation. The workers did not speak fluent English or Spanish, but could convey certain phrases like, "You want pork fried rice, or chicken fried rice?", pronounced, "Yoo wah pooah fri ry, o chiki fri ry?" It seems as though these people will stay at this phase for a long time until they have fully assimilated into The Bronx.
While visiting the Shop Smart, we interviewed the owner by the name of David, and found that not only were all of his customers Puerto Rican, but so was most of his inventory. Goya beans, Adobo, Sazón, and Canella rice filled one aisle from the bottom to the top. He even directed us to the platanos at the end of the counter. The store, in which all of the workers are from Yemen, was blasting music from a pronounced Spanish radio station, which told us that they had taken something from their Puerto Rican counterparts. These people spoke Arabic but made their business inside a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. David also realized that in order to run a successful business he would have to embrace some of the Puerto Rican culture- such as the music and food in order to make the store seem inviting to the neighborhood's inhabitants. They were not intimidated by the lack of other Yemeni neighbors, rather they were relieved that the Puerto Ricans had taken them in so kindly.
After our vigorous and tiresome task of interviewing, walking, and shopping, we decided to eat at a near-by restaurant called El Pabellon. As a special treat, we came to find out that not only did this place serve Spanish food, but they also served Chinese food. Even more interesting was the fact that the waiters, who were Chinese, could speak Chinese, Spanish, and English with ease and fluidity. We spoke to the waiters in English and were responded back to in Spanish, then overheard them tell the cooks in Chinese what our orders were, showing a full command of all three languages in an acculturated phase. We came to find out later that there are many other restaurants in The Bronx where people do not even question the fact that these are Chinese people speaking Spanish, rather it is an acceptable notion. It is as if the Puerto Ricans in the community were oblivious to what ethnicity the waiters were born into.
Services Available to Puerto Ricans
Every church along Soundview Ave, whether it be Catholic or Pentecostal, offers both English language mass and Spanish language mass. Holf Cross Church offered more Spanish language masses than English to cater to its predominantly Hispanic community. There were no churches along Soundview Avenue that did not offer at least one Spanish language mass. The churches' signs also highlighted events, special days of prayer and greetings in Spanish, rather than English. Most churches in The Bronx offer Spanish language services although the only time to catch the masses are in the early hours of the morning, such as 7 or 8. St. Frances de Chantal church on Harding Avenue only offers their Spanish mass at 7:30 a.m. This neighborhood is a predominantly Irish/Italian neighborhood, but the parish recognizes that some of the members of their church may not be able to partake fully in their normal masses because of a language barrier. However in other areas of The Bronx where Latinos are the predominant group, many churches, especially small "store-front" churches offer solely Spanish language services, or perhaps only a few services in English which are very hard to come by.
Aspira is one of the most renown organizations dedicated to the advancement of Puerto Rican culture. It was founded in 1961 by a group of Puerto Rican educators who were appalled by the dropout rates among Puerto Rican youth. The services that Aspira offers vary greatly from drop-out prevention programs in the less prestigious schools of the city to leadership clubs and career advisement for the more fortunate schools. They also are starting a program that will teach "job readiness" to High School students so that they can graduate High School and enter a work field and are found in 40 percent of all schools through out the city.
The program was created with the interests of Puerto Ricans in mind; however anyone is invited to share the benefits this program has to offer. Most of the students utilizing the program are of some Hispanic heritage and only about 20 percent of them are African-American and other races. Ann Marquez explains that the highest volume of students are "second and third generation Aspirantes, whose parents were Aspirantes as well."
While bilingual services are available in Spanish, Mrs. Marquez points out that most of those seeking out Aspira's programs are English dominant students who "need more training in Spanish than in English", which according to Marquez, they do not provide. The only instances where English is not the dominant language are in those schools requiring drop out prevention programs. Due to such a small volume of other ethnicities that reach out to Aspira, staff normally do not speak any other languages other than English and Spanish. As Mrs. Marquez points out, there has never been such an instance yet where it would be needed.
An interesting point has been brought up by these findings. Those students who are English dominant, are those who belong to more prestigious High Schools and who utilize college counseling services as opposed to poorer High Schools where the students are Spanish dominant and utilize job training and drop-out prevention programs. We feel that Aspira should develop an ESL program, which would emphasize the teaching of Spanish to English dominant speakers while simultaneously encouraging them to pursue a higher education, since that is after all, their main goal.
The Soundview Health Center, a place which offers check-ups, x-rays, blood work, and prescriptions is the most prominent clinic in one large part of the Bronx community. Mrs. Lillian DeJesus, a supervisor for the clinic gave some insight as to the population of Puerto Rican patients that visit the clinic daily. About 70-80 percent of all patients are of Puerto Rican descent, while the other 20-30 percent are mostly African American with a few Caucasians. The facility is run by employees who for the most part speak English and Spanish equally well, but no other languages; the doctors consist of Turks, Asians, and Puerto Ricans.
About 60 percent of all incoming Puerto Rican patients have a problem communicating in English, so one would think that it would be hard for these patients to talk to a doctor who does not know Spanish. When asked if the clinic offered translators to these patients, Mrs. DeJesus replied, "No, we don't have to... They bring their own most of the time." The clinic staff has no trouble running the facility smoothly in terms of language barriers because they rarely encounter patients who speak any other languages beyond Spanish and English unless the patients bring their own translators. Ms. Rosalie Monroig, a secretary at the Einstein Hospital in The Bronx claims that most if not all of the employees, even the janitors within the hospital speak Spanish and English equally. She claims that one girl in her department "can't speak a lick of English" and therefore has a hard time communicating with the patients. This is the case in many hospitals in The Bronx due to the high volume of monolingual Puerto Ricans who are qualified for such jobs. For the most part, there seem to be no major discrepancies within the medical field in The Bronx in terms of language barriers.
Puerto Rican culture, in and of itself, is one of diversity and sometimes one of seclusion. As Mr. Mike Alavarez points out in his highly Puerto Rican accent, "Dominicans, they really kill the language... Sometimes, they don't, they don't even know what you are talking about." Puerto Ricans want to learn the English language but sometimes denounce the advancement of some other ethnic communities around them, as seen in Mr. Alvarez' statement. Many Puerto Ricans believe that they could not get by in The Bronx without knowing at least some basic English. The Post Office had only one piece of literature in Spanish, demonstrating that not all businesses want to preserve languages other than English.
To some extent, Puerto Ricans in The Bronx want to assimilate so much into American culture that they lose some of their culture. This is true of Puerto Ricans who are moving out of The Bronx slowly, shown by the census data, and into suburban environments. Many Puerto Ricans feel that this Americanization is a threat to the conservation of Puerto Rican communities and identities. Unlike the Chinese in Chinatown who speak mostly Chinese and will contain the state of their community for generations to come, Puerto Ricans seek to move up in class and branch out into the surrounding areas allowing them to get out of the so-called "ghetto." In doing so, they leave behind their Spanish language 9 a.m. Pentecostal mass or their Saturdays with the Catholic parishioners of the Puerto Rican community. They must learn to assimilate rapidly once they get out of The Bronx, but in The Bronx, it is a slow and gradual process. The reason for this seems to be due to those Hispanic people who live there who have a family history of living there so they continue to speak their native language to those around them, who most likely, also come from the same ethnic background. Often times if English is learned, it is done through schooling but not practiced frequently in the home or neighborhood. For this reason many Bronx Latinos are unable to assimilate into an English speaking society as quickly as other people who move into neighborhoods where Spanish is not so widely used.
There is something to say about the progress of Puerto Rican education in The Bronx. Although a person can be bombarded with hundreds of Spanish named record shops on any given street, Spanish named bookstores are a rarity. Is it to say that Puerto Ricans value their cultural identity more than their intellectual identity? Yes, this is the case. Puerto Ricans in The Bronx uphold certain traditions: Three Kings day, throwing block parties which can be heard for blocks around, having two sets of godparents for a son or daughter. Puerto Ricans are not always concerned with educational sectors of their communities; they leave this medium to the Board of Education. This is directly correlated to the low education and high drop out rates in The Bronx. All of a child's learning is done in the classroom, but when they get home, they'd better do their chores lest they get hit with a chancleta (Puerto Rican slipper).
Puerto Ricans in The Bronx embrace the American culture, but try to remain Puerto Rican throughout the duration of the process, meaning that they continue to speak Spanish to their neighbors and children. Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans want to learn English to expand their range of communication, Spanish remains an integral part of their identity. It is through their social networks and surroundings that they remain a cohesive ethnicity, not solely a secluded one, but one which upholds traditional values.
Hosay, Philip M. "The Puerto Rican Experience." 5 Ethnic groups In New York City. 1977. Census 2000. www.census.gov/prod/2001/pubs/c2kbrol1-3.ptf.
Chancellor's Report on Education of English Language. New York City Board of Education, 2000. www.nycenet.edu/daa/reports/chan_ell_ed_report.pdf.
Zentella, Ana Celia. Growing Up Bilingual. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1977.