By LEONEL MARTINEZ / South Kern Sol
LAREDO, Texas — One of the most striking differences between the Texas border city of Laredo and Kern County, where I’ve lived all my life, is this: Every time you talk to a stranger in Laredo you’ll probably get what I call “the bilingual check.”
That’s when the other person checks you out for a few seconds, trying to decide whether to continue the conversation in Spanish or English. With a population that is 96 percent Hispanic, it’s a safe bet that most of Laredo’s 250,000 residents speak those two languages.
It turns out that Latinos in that city are much like those in the rest of America, according to a new analysis released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Sorting through data from the 2013 National Survey of Latinos, the center found that 62 percent of US Hispanic adults speak English or are bilingual. About a quarter of Latinos surveyed used English, 38 percent preferred Spanish, and 36 percent spoke both languages.
Those most likely to be bilingual are the children of first-generation immigrants, with half indicating they spoke both languages. This makes sense since they likely speak Spanish to communicate with family members and mostly English the rest of the time.
A visit to Laredo brings these dry statistics to life, as the city seems to wholeheartedly embrace its bicultural identity.
Metal sculptures of an American cowboy and a Mexican vaquero greet you at the Laredo International Airport. Cars parked downtown bear license plates with the names of Mexican states like Coahuila, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. A bumper sticker on the counter of the nearby restaurant Taco N’ Madre quotes President Ronald Reagan.
A welcome discovery on my trip to Laredo was “tacos de brisket,” which put a Mexican spin on Texans’ sacred cut of beef.
And whether I was in a department store, bank or restaurant, it seemed that everyone could switch from English to Spanish with the ease of someone changing television channels with a remote. When you are close enough to Mexico to stand on a downtown sidewalk and see cars trundling over the border, the ability to speak both languages is a must.
I believe such bilingualism is a good thing.
Raised in a home with a Spanish-speaking grandfather, I minored in the language in college. It’s impossible to count how many times being bilingual helped me in my 15 years as a reporter, from interviewing Salvadoran immigrants at the Los Angeles Riots to talking with Mexican farmworkers in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
A political minority in the US may fear that speaking a foreign language will somehow diminish the importance of learning English, but history shows otherwise. That did not happen with the waves of European immigrants in the past, and it will not happen with those from Latin America. Assimilation is too strong a force, and newcomers know the language of financial success is English.
Will the increasing number of Hispanics turn the country into a bilingual nation? Probably not.
Pew researchers also found a pattern that seems inevitable: Bilingualism decreases among the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants. By the third generation, a quarter of Latinos said they were bilingual, and only one percent spoke mainly Spanish.
But there may be a third language category for Hispanics.
Seventy percent of Latinos age 16 to 25 told the Pew center that they also speak another language: Spanglish.
Leonel Martínez is a regular contributor to the South Kern Sol and can be reached at email@example.com.