Two Languages Removed

Greenfield's indigenous immigrants must learn Spanish to survive in an English-speaking country

By Abigail Curtis

GloriaWhen Gloria Merino came to the United States from Mexico five years ago, she couldn’t understand what the foreman was telling her in the fields, how to explain her high blood pressure to doctors or how to communicate with the police who picked her up for drinking in public.

The barrier to communication was not because Merino, an indigenous Triqui from Mexico, didn’t speak English. Rather, in this farming town that is more than 85 percent Latino, she needed to know Spanish.

“Now I’m doing better at understanding people little by little,” said Merino, who like many indigenous immigrants here arrived only speaking Triqui.

For generations, immigrants have integrated into American life by learning English, California’s official language by 1986 voter-approved constitutional amendment. But in Greenfield, indigenous Oaxacans are finding that they must first learn Spanish to survive. The thousands of Mixtec and Triqui people living in the town of 12,000 are caught between two worlds. As adults work hard to learn Spanish and find their place within the town, they struggle to keep their native language and culture alive in the younger generation, which is learning English.

“Our language is a gift from God,” said Eulogio Solano, who insists that his children speak only their native Mixteco at home.

It’s no different than the growing pains of any new immigrant community – except that the indigenous languages are so rare, educators and even researchers are at a loss about how to teach English to Triqui and Mixteco speakers.

Carolina Serna, an assistant professor of education at California State University Monterey Bay, came to an English-as-a-second-language classroom at Greenfield High School to plan a project on tri-lingualism. It’s a hot topic in her education classes right now, she said.

“Every semester, somebody is bound to ask, ‘What do we do with the kids who speak an indigenous language?” Serna said.

It’s a question that Anselmo Lopez is too busy to ask.

In his crowded classroom at Vista Verde Middle School, the teacher looks besieged – not by the 40 adolescents of wildly different ability, but by his impossible task.

Lopez's job is to teach the recent immigrants English and get them mainstreamed into the regular classrooms in a year. But some of them come to California practically illiterate, having rarely or never attended school in Mexico. Others might be better served in a special-needs classroom. And a few don't speak Spanish, though he said that they learn the language quickly surrounded by the Mexican-American culture of Greenfield.

“All the [TV] programming is in Spanish, the soap operas are in Spanish,” he said. “These kids are assimilating. They are going to assimilate in such a way that they are just going to forget their primary languages.”

He notices that some of the indigenous Oaxacan middle-schoolers – about 60 percent of the class – are embarrassed to speak Triqui or Mixteco.

"They get picked on so much, by kids who are living here, by the community, who don't really like that they are here,” Lopez said. "You ask them, 'Who knows Triqui? Who knows Mixteco?' They just keep their mouths shut. They choose to forget it."

Evarista Martinez, 12, from Santa Cruz Rio Venado, Oaxaca, is a Triqui who came north one year ago. She wears her long black hair tied back, and with her pink pants and white sneakers, she looks fiercely American. Though Martinez speaks Triqui and Spanish and is learning English, she said that she will not teach her own children her native tongue. Instead, she will teach them Spanish.

“They have to learn it,” she said.

The attitude worries Hermogenes Rojas, a field worker who came from San José de las Flores, Oaxaca, several years ago. He said that he sees Mixteco, his native language, as a part of the glue that binds the community’s close-knit families together.

“We don’t want the kids to lose the language,” Rojas said. “Kids that learn Spanish first instead of their home languages … are going to be disrespectful of others and we don’t want that to happen to our kids.”

If Triqui and Mixteco are the languages of family and tradition, and Spanish is the language of daily survival in Greenfield, English is seen as the language of the future.

Merino and other indigenous Oaxacans are taking English in the town’s free adult education program.

On this morning, the students – all Latino or indigenous Oaxacan - stare at a photocopy of “The One-Eyed Doe,” one of Aesop’s Fables. During dictation – when the class copies sentences from the old-fashioned fable – Merino’s pink pen moves slowly over her notebook. There are distractions. A woman passes business cards around the room offering “discriminating tamales.”

The moral of the fable, “you cannot escape your fate,” seems cruel among a group that has traveled far and is working to learn the language of their new country.

“Here, there’s work, there’s help,” Merino said. “In Oaxaca there’s not anything.”

©2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism