This blog post is the second in a series on Hispanic Heritage Month, written by Robert L. Santos, US Census Director
In my last blog I recounted my fateful encounter with a prickly pear cactus and how that helped me later in life to be true to myself as I explored my identity. Today I’ll share with you more about the genesis of my ethnic identity.
Believe it or not, my journey of identity commences before I was born! The lives of my abuelos — my grandparents — played an enormous role in my identity. A milestone occurred about a half a century before I was born with a special journey taken by my grandparents to my place of birth: San Antonio, Texas.
Here is a picture of my grandparents and their growing family. We see my dad (Raul) who’s atop that way-cool tricycle, my uncle Juan Jose, Jr. (Johnny), and my Aunt Consuelo (Connie) in the stroller. My grandparents would have two more daughters.
Like many families in their generation, my grandparents fled Northern Mexico to avoid the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. My grandparents set their sights on San Antonio, Texas. My grandfather quickly found a job tending to one of the greenhouses at the Brackenridge estate in San Antonio. Anyone from San Antonio knows Brackenridge Park – they’re the same family. This picture was taken in front of a house on the estate grounds in an area known as Alamo Heights.
My grandparents came to San Antonio by simply crossing the Texas‐Mexico border sin papeles. They were refugees. Both of my parents were second-generation immigrants, born in San Antonio, which makes me a third-generation immigrant.
Why talk about immigrant generations? They represent the starting point of an immigrant family’s acculturation after arriving in a new country. Let’s take a look at some interesting numbers from a 2015 study of immigrant family generations in the U.S.:
Results from Pew Research Center’s Survey of Latinos research indicate what you may already suspect: the percentage of households speaking Spanish at home declines with successive generations. Their Survey suggests that virtually all first-generation Latino households speak Spanish at home, but the numbers drop to about half by the third generation.
And true to form, there was a bit of Spanish spoken in my second-generation home when I was growing up. But my third-generation family – my wife, kids and I – exclusively spoke English at home.
Now, my grandparents were all monolingual Spanish speakers throughout their lives. And until I was about 5 years old, my grandmother lived with us and cared for us grandkids while my parents worked and laid claim to the American dream. That means my early days were spent in a mostly Spanish speaking household.
You may ask, “How on earth did I end up being monolingual?” I sometimes ask myself that, too.
Well, as best as I can tell, it was good intentions gone awry. Being a good Catholic family, my parents scraped enough money to send us to parochial school to be taught by Irish nuns.
The nuns believed that the secret to a good education in the barrio was for students and their families to embrace an English‐only environment. Spanish was not allowed at school, and parents were asked to only speak English at home to their children. Not all parents at that school complied, but mine did. And since my grandmother no longer lived with us, it didn’t take long. Within a few years, I had pretty much lost the Spanish fluency I had known as a young child.
It’s this language loss that led to personal conflict in my journey of identity: How could I call myself a Latinx or Mexican American if I am a monolingual English speaker?
Well, I wasn’t alone being a Latino monolingual English speaker then, and the situation is more pronounced now.
American Community Survey data between 2009 and 2019 suggest two things – first, the percentage of native-born Hispanics is steadily increasing over time and now makes up just under two-thirds of all Hispanics in the U.S. And secondly, native-born Hispanics – myself included— increasingly speak only English at home now, at about 42 percent in 2019.
I’ve mentioned the influence of parochial school on my becoming monolingual as a child, but there were actually more powerful forces that bore upon my psyche, forces we all face everyday but do not always recognize or appreciate. And oddly enough, these secrets are revealed by nothing other than a holey tee shirt worn by a four-year old.
If you want to learn about that, check out the next chapter of my ethnic identity journey. I look forward to sharing it with you. Quédate, ¡no te vayas!