Do any of you watch Rachel Maddow? She is on CNBC “The Rachel Maddow Show” and offers great smart wry commentary about whatever is happening that day in politics. I am a fan. She has a segment called “Talk Me Down” where she sounds off in an editorial sort of way and then asks someone who has real expertise on the issue to come in and “Talk Her Down”, that is, alleviate her fears or challenge her conclusions. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t. So with that short intro, here is my version of the same on something that has been on my mind and to borrow Rachel’s words; “I think I need a talking down here.”
The Spanish language holds me rapt in a romantic kind of way; I love learning it, I love using it and I want to continue studying it until someday I am mistaken (beyond a line or two) for a native speaker, by native speakers. Okay, big bite, will take long time…but that’s where I stand.
I love using my new Spanish in my old profession, Psychology. Beyond the romanticism, it is a true wonder and an honor to be invited into the lives of people who speak a language other than my native English and to be able (every now and then), to offer them some solace, some helpful pointers or insights etc. etc.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the counseling session…my access to the world of my clients through the Spanish language revealed surprises in places I didn’t expect. That is, I knew that I would be learning about how the various Hispanic sub-cultures think about any number of things differently than I, as a native of the US. I was prepared to talk about the unique challenges in blending and balancing the two worlds so that the native culture was preserved all the while the building of a new life in this culture was going on. (As though I really knew first hand anything about that.)
But what I didn’t know, is that the language itself would become a focus of conversation in the way it has. Sure, I expected that there would be times where my ability to use Spanish around particular issues or in particular moments might hit a ceiling but I never thought in a million years that I would discover in whispered ‘for my ears only moments’ that my kid clients could not understand their parents Spanish!
Are you shocked? I am! And the kids can’t really offer a theory on when or how this happened. They’re ashamed, embarrassed and overwhelmed by it really. And what’s worse is that they are holding this information from their parents who continue to think that the communication between them is how it’s always been; after all, the kids grew up monolingual Spanish. It never occurs to the parent that something has slipped out of place in part because the kids are loathe to break the news to them for one or more of the following reasons; 1) they didn’t realize that they were losing their Spanish, 2) their parents didn’t believe them when they said they didn’t understand something, 3) they don’t want to disappoint their parents, and 4) their parents are out of touch with the US culture anyway, it would just cause more arguments and bad feelings if what was being said was really being understood. The kid would ironically lose their rather odd competitive edge.
So here’s the foreboding summary; most immigrant parents don’t speak English and the kids over time speak and understand less and less Spanish.
Well, you remind me, this has been going on for as long as there has been immigration. Well I know, I say back at you. But before, immigrant communities have been small enough to be kept in their place or alternately choose to keep to themselves in a way that the dominant culture could be rather blissfully ignorant of this glitch in the whole lovely melting pot sentiment. In today’s ‘New World’ the growing numbers of immigrants alone cause one to pause and realize that ignorance is no longer our panacea.
Think of it. The immigrant parents have already given up a good bit of their power (read, fabric that binds) in the family as their kids become their translators in the English speaking community. On behalf of their parents kids deal with adult matters now; negotiating with landlords, arranging payment schedules with the electric or phone company, talking with doctors about their mother’s private medical matters, to teachers about how they themselves are not working up to standards…..you name it. Just imagine relocating to a foreign country and having as your interpreter for every single issue, your 5 year old. You are completely dependent on this little creature who has limited capacity to understand adult matters. “Cut! Scene change! Now show a close-up of the emotional and psychological toll it takes on the kid to be responsible for such matters at a time in their life when their greatest need is to feel safe and protected and cared for by their parents.” “Cut! Great! That was chilling. Good job everyone, let’s break for lunch.”
Oh, but those are just feelings captured by words in the script of daily life. As the years wear on something more sinister is at foot – the English language and US culture begin to take root in the little one and the kids find themselves adrift without an anchor or a steady compass. ‘Culture’ is as real as it is an abstraction. It forms and has influence over the child but it can not and will not adopt this child and love and care for it like a mom and dad would. So bit by bit the child realizes that they are effectively alone. Mom and dad are talking about values and ideas and expectations that don’t quite match up with the way things are day to day for the kid here in the US . The dominant culture here doesn’t get at all what it’s like at home with mom and dad. Yes, these are abstractions, hard to put a finger on but abstractions with dangerous and real consequences. Parents and children are naturally separated by generation and experience but now language, the very tool used by families to negotiate these issues and keep them together, is losing it’s edge.
Some recent statistics indicate that 93% of gang members nationally are Latinos and this number is growing by alarming percentages each year. The following speaks of only one community of countless that are encountering this phenomenon.
“Gang membership among Orange County children jumped by nearly 50 percent in 2007, according to an annual county report on conditions for children.
That increase, from 1,205 in 2006 to 1,766 in 2007, continues a rise in gang membership that was first reported in last year’s Report On The Conditions of Children in Orange County, ending a six-year run of relatively low, steady gang membership. And it takes the number of gang members among children ages 8-17 to the highest level since 1998, before a sharp decrease cut gang membership in half over five years.
“Violence may be increasing along with the number of gangs and gang members, and the increased availability of firearms,” the report said. “As a result, the need for specialized units to address gang problems will continue.”
The rise is mostly in Hispanic gangs, according to the report. In 1998, three-fourths of juvenile gang members were Latino; in the most recent reporting, that number was 93 percent.
And 14 percent of all gang members are 17 years old or younger – up from 11 percent in 2006, and up from 10 percent in 1998.
Besides the rise in gang membership, a number of other indicators showed some conditions getting worse, or positive trends stalling. The percentage of moms getting early prenatal care dropped to 91 percent, after three years at 92 percent. The number of children who are dependents of the court rose for the first time since 1999, to 3,447 children.
The number of juveniles arrested in 2006 – the most recent year with data – increased for the first time since 1998.
And more than 36,500 child abuse cases were reported in 2006-2007, up 3,200 from the previous reporting period.” (http://www.ocregister.com/articles/gang-percent-children-2202142-number-membership)
It is tempting to think that one of the reasons children flee their homes and join gangs of others like them is because they literally cannot communicate with their families. And with this loss of communication goes the support and nurture and guidance that is critical to the development of children and their ability to think through and manage the challenging circumstances of life.
I am not saying that the other challenges of being an immigrant don’t play a part here. The culture adjustment alone is isolating and disorienting; the very rhythm of life changes for immigrants. Of course for so many families there is also the issue of their ‘status’ here; obligated to hide in plain sight. Each of these have implications that have the power to make their mark for generations. But add to these the most basic barrier to health and well being of all; the ability to exchange information at whatever level about whatever subject, in a common language.
SO TALK ME DOWN IF YOU CAN! I am now assessing the issue of who speaks what language and at what level early on in my sessions with my clients. I am urging the parents to learn English as quickly as they can and the kids to hang on to their Spanish. Effectively I am urgently pleading with the family be become and maintain a fluency in both languages. I believe that with the ability to speak with one another, the normal generational dialogues can commence, the healthy conflicts between children and their parents can be fought and families can continue to be the place most obvious for kids to find their support and map for the tough life ahead. Tiene sentido, ¿No? – Joan
P.S. If it is true that a culture is only as strong as its weakest link, what does the family crisis in a population inundating us with such numbers mean to the frabric of what we have come to believe is the culture of the US? It may not be convenient or possible for us to live as though this were not happening for much longer. In fact, those of you living in the ‘borderlands’ have been trying to get the rest of us to take your reality seriously for decades. Immigration policy is next on Obama’s agenda right? As we ponder this delimma as a nation, we need to remember that what we decide and how we put it into action is the true reflection of who we are. Most things in life are not planned for, nor asked for, but they are ours just the same. It happens that Luis and I are in the business of teaching Spanish, but aside from the obvious conflict of interest this question could cause; wouldn’t it make good solid, practical sense given the direction of immigration if nothing else, for our required topics in school to include Spanish?