by Jody P. Bethel
As Kieron Estrada walks into a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles and sits down, he is greeted with “Hola, como estas?” by the waiter. The young man nods his head as to acknowledge the greeting, and is handed a menu and asked, “Que es lo que gusta señor?” (What would you like sir?) Estrada points to the chimichanga and says, “This one please.” The waiter takes back the menu, chuckles, and says, “No habla español!”
It would be assumed that a young man with the last name of Estrada would speak English as a second language and his native tongue would be Spanish. However, this is not the case.
Consider: A middle aged man with the last name of Siciliano walks into an Italian deli with his family. The Italian man behind the counter making pizza and lasagna, says, “Ciao, that means ‘Hi’ in Italian kids,” and continues, “What can I get for ya folks? Pizza, sandwiches?”
Consider: A blonde haired, blue-eyed school child walks into the Scandinavian bakery to buy some cookies, and the woman behind the counter asks the child with a smile, “Can I get you some cookies, cakes, or maybe you’d like to try Lefsa; it would be much like an American pancake, honey, but it comes from Norway.”
In our melting pot community of Southern California, where nationalities of many countries come together, languages of many lands are often lost with the passage through generations.
It is not expected that the Italian family members would have kept the language from the land of their roots, nor for the little blonde Norwegian girl to know what Lefsa was from the Scandinavian bakery.
It is expected, though, that the young man from South Central Los Angeles would know Spanish and would be able to order off the menu, at least – even if he couldn’t hold a detailed conversation with Ramon, who owned the restaurant.
In the Southern California community, with the growing population of Latino individuals and the Spanish language so widely used, it is often assumed that everyone with the last name of Estrada, Gomez or Avelar speaks Spanish.
A second thought is not even made by most Americans when they are given directions to the DMV, or given papers and brochures that appear in both English and Spanish. It would never be expected to see German, Italian or Middle Eastern languages in like places.
It seems that California society believes the assumption that all Latinos know more than just un poquito-a little bit of Spanish.
Estrada, a University of La Verne senior, was reared in an Irish Catholic household with his Irish mother, grandmother and aunt; he didn’t acquire Spanish as his native tongue. Estrada’s father, who was born and reared in South Central Los Angeles and has a Latino heritage of Yaci Indian and Mexican, does not speak any more Spanish than just street “jive,” he says. Sue Welsh, Estrada’s Irish mother, does speak Spanish, though, which may come as a surprise. She learned the language before going on a trip to Cuba in high school.
It was Estrada’s great-grandparents who came from Mexico. Spanish was never spoken at Estrada’s home, though, and the only recollection that he has of a Spanish speaking relative is his great grandmother. As a young child of five or six, she would give him a nickel each time she saw him. As Estrada proudly walked away, she would spit out something in Spanish, leaving his childhood imagination to wonder what she may have said to him, he remembers.
As a member of Grupo Folklore West L.A., a dance group run by John Estrada, Kieron’s father, Kieron has become fluent in a different form of his heritage than that of the Spanish language. He flows through the air and into the wind while dancing to the moves of traditional Mexican folk dance, and speaks his heritage through his body.
Learning the Spanish language is not a priority for Estrada. “Just because you speak the language doesn’t mean you know anything about the culture, which a lot of people forget,” he says.
For Estrada, being asked whether he knows Spanish when people hear his last name is something of a burden to him. He admits that not having a Latino physical appearance means he doesn’t get asked much when people meet him.
Estrada feels that learning Spanish just to be able to order at a restaurant is not crucial to understanding his heritage. Understanding the Mexican folk dance is a much more beneficial form of language, he says.
Like Estrada, Gilbert Gomez, ULV senior, shares the same feelings. Gomez, whose mother is Caucasian and whose father is Hispanic, was born and reared in Moreno Valley, Calif. His great grandparents immigrated from Mexico, and his father’s parents were born in the United States.
Spanish is not spoken in the Gomez household, due to the fact that Gilbert’s mother does not speak Spanish. His father speaks Spanish with his brothers and parents when they are together, but English is the primary language spoken in the house.
“Having Spanish spoken in the household would have been helpful with the growing demand for bilingual individuals in our society, but it wasn’t there,” says Gomez.
For Echelle Avelar, a ULV sophomore, the Spanish language is not part of her daily life. On her mother’s side of the Mexican-American family, she is fourth generation, and from her father’s side of the family, she is third. Both of her parents know some Spanish and can understand the language but do not speak it fluently. Her grandmothers spoke Spanish while they were alive, and her grandfather on her father’s side of the family still speaks Spanish today but speaks English as well.
Rather than feeling her Latino heritage through the flow of words out of her mouth, Avelar says she experiences it by what she puts into her mouth-through food. The holidays are always a time when her family shares in the traditional dishes of her ancestors’ native land. At the Christmas holiday, tamales, are a traditional Latino dish that are made and eaten. Unlike her ancestors who made the tamales by hand, the Avelar family buys them.
Easter is a time for Avelar to capture the taste of her heritage by consuming the special dish of capirotada . During special times of the year, her family will have menudo, and breads and pastries that are unique to the Latino culture. “It is a way of bringing back what my grandparents did,” says Avelar.
People sometimes assume she knows Spanish because of her last name. She has noticed this occurring especially at job interviews. “At times it would be beneficial to know, because it is expected,” she says. With each generation, the language disappears, says Avelar.
Where English is the primary language in America, different cultures still hold the roots of their heritage within them. Nevertheless, it is not necessary for them to speak the native tongue of their ancestors.
It is important for any individual living in California to speak Spanish, due to its multicultural society, according to Dr. Mary Prieto-Bayard, assistant professor of Behavioral Sciences at the University of La Verne. However, she doesn’t feel fluency in Spanish means that a person is culturally in tune with his heritage. When it comes to Latino individuals speaking Spanish, ” I don’t think [they are] any less Latino if they don’t speak the language,” says Dr. Prieto-Bayard.
Without speaking the language of one’s ancestors, a person still is German, Norwegian, Italian, Japanese or Middle Eastern. And, yes, if the great grandparents’ native tongue was Spanish, one can still call himself Latino.