Hispanic Heritage Month: Hable español | WBAY
GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – The most recent U.S. Census data shows almost 42 million people speak Spanish at home — more than twice as many as in 1990.
Some people might think the children of Latino immigrant parents automatically learn Spanish or speak only Spanish at home. But the question of whether those next generations will speak Spanish is different in every family and is dependent on a lot of factors.
And sometimes it doesn’t stick.
Kathryn Bracho’s father was born and raised in Mexico City. He met her Minnesotan mom, Mary, in 1968. They lived together in Mexico for almost three years and eventually moved to Minnesota, where they raised Kathryn and her little sister, Cristina.
Her mom was also fluent, so the children got a heavy dose of Spanish every day when they were growing up.
“I remember mostly Mom and Dad speaking it to each other, and I remember them teaching it to us kind of intermittently,” Cristina James said.
A Pew Research study shows about half of second-generation Hispanics say they can speak Spanish very well — but about 20 percent say they can speak only a little or not at all.
Kathryn acknowledges her three-year-old self could probably carry on a conversation in Spanish better than she can now.
“Our conversations of your mother and myself, I would say that were more than 50 percent Spanish and that’s how you really started learning,” Mr. Bracho said.
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay assistant professor Maria Yakushkina has researched how children of Hispanic immigrants use Spanish in their daily lives. She says if the local community is more welcoming to Spanish, it’s more likely kids will learn it and it can benefit them.
“The areas with very high density of Hispanic community, it’s highly important and even crucial to have Spanish proficiency to be able to get a job,” Yakushkina noted.
Experts say there are many reasons immigrant families choose to teach their kids Spanish: To help them connect with their culture, to increase their opportunities professionally, or just to talk with family back home.
Kathryn’s dad said it helped her talk to her grandparents in Mexico City.
“We tried to teach the kids Spanish because the constant communication with my parents in Mexico,” Miguel Bracho said. “So, we want them to be able to get to know them and to talk to them in Spanish.”
“So basically it’s communication with family in the country of origin, for example, or with grandparents, monolingual grandparents,” Yakushkina said.
In Kathryn’s family, her parents spoke a ton of Spanish to the children when they were really little, but as they got older, Mr. Bracho recalled, “You, little by little, refused to speak Spanish, because at that time you started having many friends that didn’t speak Spanish and you didn’t want to be different, and that certainly slowed down your learning process.”
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh assistant professor Maria del Carmen Graf says that’s not uncommon.
“You want to blend. You, as a growing individual, you don’t want to be singled out from your group,” she said.
But then, in high school and college, the Bracho sisters studied Spanish and tried to relearn it… to a certain extent.
Del Carmen Graf says it’s something many kids of immigrants do.
“As they grow up and mature, they learn about the value of having this second language, not only because of our identity but the value they can provide to the community as professionals.”
Cristina admitted, “I would say that I’m fluent maybe to the level of a 10-year-old. It’s pretty broken, my Spanish. So I wish that I knew it better.”
Kathryn said, “I remember trying to have phone calls with Abuela in Spanish and just feeling like I was struggling and not really wanting to do it, but now I look back and feel like, ‘Oh, I wish I could have spoken to her better.’”
But Kathryn and her sister are grateful for the Spanish we do know because it’s part of who we are.
We are Latinas — somos Latinas.