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Languages Other Than English Spoken in Colombian Communities in New York

Michelle Boisson and Peggy Madrid

     One can define Colombians through many different traits: their patrimony, music, food, tradition, religion and language. However, when it comes to language, a symbolic trait of ethnicity, Colombians share Spanish with many other nationalities. In fact one fourth of New York households speak Spanish when only a small percentage of the population is Colombian. The area that we chose to explore is Jackson Heights Queens, specifically down Roosevelt Avenue.

     Roosevelt Avenue has all the typical elements of any vibrant and diversified community. Along the blocks were the street venders the sounds of Cumbia, Salsa, Vallenato and Merengue coming out of the local music shops and passing cars, employees handing out flyers to promote businesses such as restaurants or schools that guarantee an individual can learn English within 6 months. Flags of every nation proudly waved from car antennas, apartment windows, and business establishments. The different dialects of Spanish coming from the local people only emphasized the diversified environment that surrounded us. Roosevelt Avenue is a large street lined with all types of businesses. Restaurants, banks, clothing stores, music stores, schools sit alongside one another along, sometimes one above the other. Almost all the businesses along Roosevelt Avenue have signs in Spanish that appeal to the large Spanish speaking population that currently resides in Jackson Heights. The avenue is covered with a shadow cast by the towering and roaring rails of the 7 train. One of the most unique traits of this community is its large Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Mexican population that is evident among the faces of all its inhabitants.

     The goal of our mission was to identify the elements that strongly represented the presence of the Colombian community in New York City, and to explore to what extent Spanish had permeated in this region. We had no problem finding the influence of the Colombian community in Jackson Heights.

     Our initial interest in this project was to investigate the languages other than English spoken in certain communities, but as we went more and more into our research we realized that Spanish is one of the strongest ties that exist among the inhabitants of this community. Luckily, one of us, Peggy, is a fluent Spanish speaker. She is a New York-born Colombian who is completely bilingual. Her knowledge on Colombian culture and language not only helped us with the project, but it was enriched with new information. On the other hand, I, Michelle, am a Haitian-American native to Queens, with only a working knowledge of Spanish. Spanish is in fact my third language, with English and French being my first and second respectively. We learned that Spanish is not only a way of communication, but it is a way in which the Colombians preserve their heritage. It is the carrier of tradition and culture and the link that bonds and keeps this community together and connected with its distant homeland.

     During our investigation, we visited an elementary school, certain city and community organizations, private businesses, and places of entertainment in the hopes of learning what roles does the Spanish language play in this community. We encountered many unique features in Jackson Heights, such as a movie theater that played movies with Spanish sub-titles, many different restaurants with names such as Tierras Colombianas, Mi Pequeña Colombia, and Casa Colombia, bilingualism in school and other interesting places and people which we will describe in more detail later in the paper.

PS 19: an Establishment where English is taught for free

     On 98 Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights we visited the local school P.S. 19. We interviewed a counselor that worked in the area of parent development. Mr. Armand La Grange is also in charge of the adult ESL programs that take place in the school. He told us that there are about 4 adult ESL classes that take place from 8:40 in the morning to 10:00 a.m. In total, there are roughly about 250 adults enrolled in that program provided absolutely free by the school. Mr. La Grange also told us that over 25% of the children in the school are enrolled in the ESL program, which are roughly about 500 to 600 students out of 1,800 students in the school. In P.S.19 any child that is enrolled in a bilingual program has to take mandatory ESL classes in order to master the English language. About 85% of the students that are enrolled in the ESL program are of Hispanic descent. According to Mr. La Grange, approximately about one fifth of the students enrolled in the ESL program are Colombian. Mr. La Grange told us that in the past children born in the United States of immigrant parents were sometimes enrolled in the ESL program, but that now only children native born of countries other than the United States can be enrolled in the ESL program. "In this school there is a great demand for bilingual staff members among them teachers and counselors that assist in the education process of these children that are taking English as a second language," stated Mr. La Grange a bilingual speaker as well. The large Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Mexican presence that exist in Jackson Heights, Queens has definitely altered the traditional American educational system in this area, to the extent that there are bilingual staff members and ESL programs to cater to the largely Hispanic population.

Local Businesses: Bilingual and Spanish-only Services

     All along Roosevelt Avenue, we were bombarded with businesses that tried to market their products mainly in Spanish, in this section we will talk about three different businesses that spoke, in one case, just Spanish alone and in other cases, both Spanish and English. As we walked down Roosevelt Avenue, we were immediately struck by the loud melodies of Cumbia, a Colombian trait, blasting from this small music shop. In the front of the shop, there were many posters of Spanish artists and the official T-Shirt of the Colombian National Soccer Team on a mannequin. We entered and interviewed the young lady attending the business establishment. The young girl is a Colombian-born 24-year-old named Carmen Elena Morales. Carmen was the person attending the shop at the moment, because of her lack of knowledge of the English language we had to conduct the interview in Spanish, which is the only language that she knows. She told us that a Colombian born gentleman that is fluent in both Spanish and English owns the business. According to Carmen the majority of the customers that come into the music shop are Colombian and Ecuadorian. She told us that almost all the customers that came into the shop spoke Spanish and purchase Vallenato, Cumbia, Salsa, Spanish Rock, and some Merengue. She noticed that she rarely ever encountered a customer that only spoke English.

     The second business that we went into was a Chinese restaurant located between 103rd and 104th and Roosevelt Avenue. The front of this establishment read: Comida China y Latina, or Chinese and Spanish food. As we looked at the menu, we saw the usual pork fried rice, chicken wings, low mein, chow mein, soups, yet the deeper into the menu we looked, the more spanish it began to seem to us. It soon started to read: Chuletas, Maduros, Arroz con habichuelas, Arroz Moro, and Tostones. The menu was written in both English and Spanish, which demonstrated to us the accommodation made by the business owner to the Spanish-speaking community. We interviewed the owner of the restaurant, who happened to have a very unique ethnic background. At first sight the owner seemed to appear Asian, but when we asked him where he was born he responded Venezuela. We were in utter shock, because this man did not seem like he was from Venezuela. But he eagerly revealed to us that his parents are from China, but that he was born and raised in Venezuela, and that is why he has a Chinese and Latino restaurant all in one. His father used to be a chef and that is how he learned how to cook Chinese food. The owner's first language is Spanish, his second language is Chinese, and his third language is English. The majority of the customers that come to his restaurant were Colombians, Ecuadorians, and some Mexicans. All his staff members were fluent in Spanish even though none of them seemed to be of Hispanic descent. He told us that Spanish food is sold just as much as Chinese food in his restaurant.

     The third business that we visited is a very popular food chain that is familiar to everyone: McDonald's. The McDonald's located on the corner of 104th and Roosevelt seemed like any other McDonald's franchise from the outside, but once we stepped inside, we realized this McDonald's was slightly different to the McDonald's found in most parts of NY. The first thing that we noticed about it was the Salsa music playing in the restaurant. One of the customer representatives told us that they offer services in both English and Spanish to the customers of Jackson Heights. The representative also told us that the majority of the employees at that McDonald's are Colombian and Ecuadorian. It was a unique experience for us to be in a McDonald's with Spanish music playing, this only shows the amount of influence that the Colombian community has had on this area.

     Another establishment that we will briefly touch upon is a Medical establishment, which we found on 95th and Roosevelt Avenue. This was a private Medical facility that was covered in signs purely written in Spanish. There were absolutely no signs written in English. We asked the secretary if they offered services in Spanish and she told us that the majority of the doctor's that practice in that facility know English, but they are native speakers of Spanish, and they mainly cater to the Spanish speaking community in Jackson Heights, Queens.

City and Community Organizations and their almost English-only Policies

     Of all the places we visited, City organizations were the less assimilated to the Spanish speaking community. The United Stated Post Office on 104th and Roosevelt Ave. and the Independence Bank on Gleane Street and Roosevelt Ave. were less accommodating to the non-English speakers. Though both businesses had at least one translator, the bulk of the signs and services were strictly in English. This was a great contrast to rest of the community that surrounds them.

     In the Post Office, the first thing that we noticed were the hand written signs next to the bold, print signs in English. These hand-written signs were to guide the English-illiterate. However just the fact that they were hand-written suggests that these signs were either done in haste or that the Post Office did not deem it necessary to print out signs in Spanish. We also found no trace of translated pamphlets or forms, except for one, cambio de dirrección (change of address). This was quite surprising to us: an establishment in the middle of an almost monolingual Spanish community did not provide many services in Spanish. We were unable to speak to the translator at the time because of the long line of customers. However, when we asked one of the customers how he coped with the linguistic difficulties, he answered, in Spanish of course, "It has become routine to me whenever I need the post office. I don't even need to read the papers I'm filling out. I just fill them as I normally do. If anything new comes up, I just hope there's someone there to help me at the time."

     A similar situation was found in the Independence Bank. No flyers or pamphlets had been translated into Spanish. Nor were there any signs indicating services in Spanish or second language speakers. We had to ask the security guard, if the bank provided any translators or business conducted in Spanish. He then pointed to Customer Service and said that there were people over there to help the non-English speakers. Nonetheless, it is obvious that a certain amount of English proficiency is needed to use the bank. Perhaps the reason for this is the more popular use of Latin American banks, such as Banco Popular, instead of American banks in the area.

     As for community organizations, churches in the area are dominantly Catholic and bilingual, meaning they perform Mass in both English and in Spanish at different times of the day. Usually the first mass, whether it is in the morning or the evening, is in English, directly followed by a Mass in Spanish. The church also holds Friday night bingo sessions, and every Saturday and Wednesday afternoon they hold choir practice, in which they practice singing mainly Spanish religious songs. At the church we found no specific Colombian club or church group. We came to the conclusion that they did not have these groups because the majority of Latin American countries are predominantly Catholic.

Movies and Dance: Two ways for Colombians to entertain themselves

     On 103rd and Roosevelt Ave., right next to the Post Office, the Plaza movie theater advertises the most recent movies. What's really special about this theater is that it is the only theater in within a 100-block radius to play American movies with Spanish subtitles. So strong is the influence of Spanish in this neighborhood that the owner of this theater decided to make his living using the language that surrounds him. The Plaza Theater is obviously very popular with the people of this community, especially those whose English comprehension may not be adequate enough to follow an entire feature film. It also familiarizes them more with the English language, a practice that is hard to come by in Jackson Heights where almost everything is literally done in Spanish.

     Another form of entertainment well know to Latin Americans is dance. Colombians in particular are known for La Cumbia, a sensual movement with a strong historical background that dates back to the slavery period in the Americas. The dance originated by the African slaves in Colombia, consist of short steps and sensual hip movements that originally was a form of flirting. The women used to flirt by waving their long skirts and the men demonstrated their strength by waving their huge machetes in the air. Today couples with Cumbia music and sometimes in traditional costumes perform this dance.

     Luckily for us, we found A&M studios, a dance and music school on 86th Street and Roosevelt Ave.. After searching desperately for the entrance to the 2nd floor studio, we staggered up a pretty grimy staircase and walked into a much more attractive studio lined with pictures of dancers and several small awards. We had noticed a sign offering clases de Cumbia and decided to ask the clerk about their dance classes. The clerk was on the phone when we had arrived and told us, in Spanish, that he would be with us shortly. In the meantime, we watched as dancers and musicians ran back and forth through hallways, while our impatience was quickly put to the test. We could overhear the clerk struggle to place an order in the best English he could, which was not quite fluent at all. It was obvious that A&M did not receive many non-Spanish speaking students; it was being spoken all around us. Finally the clerk was ready to speak to us. We approached him in English, since both of us were more comfortable with it. However, since he was probably tired from all the effort he put on the phone, he quickly asked if we could speak Spanish. Somewhere along the interview, a communication system was set up so that we questioned in English while he answered in Spanish.

     When we spotted the studio, we were so excited to have found something as specifically Colombian as La Cumbia, that was not food. However, once we began our questions we noticed that Colombians had very little to do with the school at all. A&M Studios offers private lessons to mostly adults at $20 an hour. They receive approximately 50 students a week coming for either dance or music lessons. The owner is Ecuadorian; most of the students are either Ecuadorian or Mexican. All instruction is done strictly in Spanish. And the Cumbia, what we thought was the dance of Colombia, was being taught by a half Puerto-Rican, half Colombian, to the surprise of both of us, teaching Mexican Cumbia. "Mexican Cumbia?!!" we both exclaimed, "Does that exist?" With all the mixes of Latin American cultures in Queens, and in Jackson Heights in particular, it was no wonder that such a thing as Mexican Cumbia would some day be created and would in fact be more popular than Colombian Cumbia. Who would have thought?

     After a long walk down Roosevelt Avenue, Peggy suggested we satisfy our appetite with a meal in one of the Colombian restaurants that she regularly visits, Tierras Colombianas on 82nd street and Roosevelt. As we sat down to eat we noticed the decoration of the restaurant was very traditional with many elements of Colombian ethnicity. We quickly learned that the owners of the restaurant were a partnership, which consisted of a Colombian female and a man from Greece. The manager of the restaurant explained to us the history of the restaurant and told us that the meat was seasoned with the Greek spices and the rest of the food was authentically Colombian. This once again showed us exactly how culturally diverse this region in Queens is, even the restaurant had a little Greek mix in it. Peggy highly recommended that we order one of the most traditional Colombian culinary specialties named "La Bandeja Campesina" which basically means "Country Platter". This dish consists of steak, rice, red beans, corn bread, eggs, sweet plantain, avocado, and "chicharon" or fried pork. The dish was somewhat on the expensive side, but after we saw and tasted this it, we were delighted and completely satisfied. We remember reading a quote on the front of the menu that read "El tipico sabor de nuestra Patria lejana" or "The typical flavor of our distant country". This quote has a lot to say about the Colombian community that has been able to come to a new country and establish themselves, their culture, and their language as a way to keep their distant country close to their hearts.

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