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The Role of Spanish in the Cuban Communities of New York City

Adrianne Guerra and Eleanor Borelli

     In order to examine the language and culture of the Cuban communities, we traveled uptown to an area just south of Washington Heights in Harlem. We had a bit of trouble locating an exact neighborhood from our research; however, a woman at a travel bureau in the city directed us towards north Harlem, indicating it is home to the largest community of Cubans in the city.

     Upon arrival, we knew we must be close. The streets were lined with stores, banks, markets, and restaurants, almost all adorned with signs and billboards in Spanish. As groups of people passed us on the street, we heard Spanish being spoken from most everyone. On almost every block there were small groups of people gathered on the sidewalk or in the storefronts talking, usually in Spanish, and just hanging out. Some were fixing cars or listening to music and others were just telling jokes and having a good time. It was a different world from where we had entered the subway on NYU's campus on West 4th Street.

     As we asked people on the street and workers in the stores where we could find a Cuban community, they would always discuss together in Spanish, and then finally give an answer in English. It was interesting to observe this because it made it clear to us that Spanish, rather than English, was the favored language of the area. After several encounters, we were still having little luck finding a specific neighborhood of only Cuban residents, so we decided to walk around the area for a while. We had met Cubans, Dominicans, and other Hispanic peoples in our investigating, but were still set on finding a specific community.

     Next, we entered a grocery store with signs covering the front windows advertising specials in Spanish. Inside the small market, all of the signs were in Spanish and everyone in the store, including the small children, spoke Spanish as well. This reinforced the idea that residents of this neighborhood depend on Spanish as the primary means of communication with other members of the community. It is the language that is most often used, and that is always favored. The store was crowded and we were in the way of business, so we decided the see what else was in the area.

     On the next corner was a bank called "Banco Internacional". Signs in Spanish advertising their rates and accounts were hung in the windows, and upon closer inspection we found that no English was displayed on the exterior of the building. We tried to enter to observe the happenings inside; unfortunately it was past the bank's hours of operation. Nevertheless, from this observation it is made clearer how important Spanish is to this community. This bank deals with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of residents of this community and their finances. Money is something very important and of concern to everyone, not only here but everywhere; therefore, the fact that this bank operates primarily in Spanish speaks volumes to the comfort level and preference that this community has with English and Spanish.

     On we walked, and soon we passed a newsstand. Upon examination we found that they carried all of the standard news publications in English, and then a variety of newspapers and magazines in Spanish. Most of the Spanish newspapers were sold out or in short supply, even though full stacks of "The New York Times" and "The New York Post" remained. This tells us that the demand for publications in Spanish is higher in this area than the demand for English material. The news is something that is important to most people of a thriving community, especially in this city in the past month. It is easy to see how a community like this one that relies on Spanish for communication of daily activities and business would buy more news material in Spanish because they may be more comfortable getting the news about our country in their first language. The stand also had a variety of fashion magazines in Spanish. Typically, we would not see these magazines in a street-side newsstand downtown in an area where English is mainly spoken; however, here they were plentiful and in demand.

     Further on down the street we found an ornate Catholic church. The church was fenced in and locked, so we could not get very close. From outside the fence we could see that there was a board on the door of the church with announcements. Along with mass times and schedules, there was a psalm from the Bible in Spanish. This demonstrates the community's connection of faith and language. Although Fidel Castro has officially named the country of Cuba as Atheist, the majority of Cubans still practice Catholicism. Just as Catholicism is part of the Cuban culture, so is Spanish. Therefore, it is important to celebrate masses and prayers in their native language.

     Across the street from the church, the sounds of children in a schoolyard, talking and playing in both English and Spanish, filled our ears. We crossed the street to investigate. The children were using both languages; they would speak in Spanish and throw a few English words in, or vice versa. This seemed to come naturally to them, as if certain words simply needed to be said in one language over the other. As we spoke to one of the teachers, who was supervising the children, we learned that most of the children, being of Cuban, Dominican, or Puerto Rican origins, spoke Spanish regularly at home and in the community, and English at school. There were a few children who were recent immigrants, and who needed special instruction in order to help them learn English well enough for school. Furthermore, for these and many other students, the only time they use the English language is at school; amongst themselves, they usually speak a mixture of both languages, and at home, usually only Spanish is used, especially since many have parents/grandparents that speak little to no English. It was interesting to note the contrast of how the children spoke in a mixed language, while the adults in the community relied solely on Spanish. The adults, it seems, have no need to speak anything other than Spanish since it is the common language of the community; the children, however, are required to speak English at school, which, at their age, is a major part of their lives, and thus English begins to infiltrate their native tongue of Spanish.

     Leaving the school, we passed by a doctor's office and later a small medical center whose signs were entirely in Spanish. We stepped inside the doctor's office, and noticed that there were many patients waiting inside. Many of them were chatting in Spanish; the doctor was very busy that day, so we decided not to disturb him. We could tell already by the patients, the sign in Spanish, and the doctor's Hispanic name, that the doctor could, and most likely did communicate to his patients in Spanish. We stopped to look at a few health pamphlets set out on a table before we left. We noticed these were mostly in Spanish, with a few that were both in English and in Spanish.

     Stepping out of the doctor's office, we saw another supermarket. This one had all sorts of different fruits and vegetables in bins in front of it. The signs were written in Spanish, and there were some fruits and vegetables that we recognized from our local supermarkets, naranjas, tomates, cebolla, as well as some that weren't as common, boniato, malanga, fruta bomba.

     Inside the supermarket, as we took a look at what was on the shelves, we noticed that most of the product labels were also in Spanish. Many of these Spanish labeled products are not often carried by non-Hispanic supermarkets. Food, being another important aspect of culture, is linked to language. The labels of the products do not need to be in English: their consumers are expected to speak the language of the country in which the food originated. As we move through the aisles, we notice the salsa music blasting through the speakers in the market. Salsa music has its origins in Cuba, but evolved into what it is now in the United States, in New York and Miami, by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrant musicians. We had also heard in other stores other music in Spanish, such as merengue, which originated in the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean immigrants of this community not only easily retain their native culture, and thus language, through religion and food, but through music as well. Their music has even infiltrated into non-Hispanic American culture, although sometimes the musician will sing an English version for one audience and a Spanish version for the other. Sometimes there is even a "Spanglish" version to reach both audiences at once, and perhaps also to reach the younger Hispanic audience, which, as we observed before in the schoolyard, seems to prefer this mixed language for use with their peers.

     At this point, we realized we had not yet found an entirely Cuban community in this area. One of us approached the woman behind the counter and asked her, in Spanish, where we could find un barrio cubano, a Cuban neighborhood. The woman seemed friendlier and more helpful than the others we had approached before. Was it perhaps because we were addressing her in Spanish instead of English? Anyhow, after consulting with several other people in the supermarket, she told us that she did not know. It appeared that the Cuban community we were told about by the woman at the travel bureau simply did not exist. Yet, Cubans do live here, among the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. The three Caribbean cultures were mixed together, which made sense when one considers the proximity of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the D.R., and their respective histories. In fact, a Puerto Rican poet, Lola Rodriguez de Tió, once wrote that Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird, de un pájaro las dos alas. Now, the situations of these three places, two countries and one territory, are very different, but the culture, and especially the language, remains very similar. From our own personal knowledge and experiences, we knew that Caribbean (i.e. Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican, as well as South American coastal) Spanish has a certain sound, rhythm, etc. that is not found in other Latin American Spanish dialects. We also knew that it most closely resembles the Spanish spoken in Andalucía, in the south of Spain, and the Canary Islands, where the early Spanish settlers of the Caribbean are thought to have come from. Caribbean Spanish is characterized especially by the aspirated "s." In other words, the s's in the middle (in unstressed syllables) and at the end of words are not pronounced as s's, but they are aspirated or simply not pronounced at all. Consonants are often dropped at the ends of words as well, for example, parado (stopped) becomes para'o. The dialects also share many words that are not used in other Spanish-speaking countries. There are, of course, differences between the dialects, but have enough in common that they are more easily understood than, say, a dialect from Argentina.

     Language may be an important factor in determining why the Cubans we found did not live in one particular area, but were scattered amongst the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Their language serves to unify the community, and it helps assimilate those who have recently arrived. An immigrant who has recently arrived from Cuba, would have an easier time adjusting to his new country, if he lived in a community like this one, where the language is familiar. He would not have to deal with learning an entirely different language and deal with a new country/way of life. The children of the immigrants would learn English, and be fluent in the language because of their schooling, but they would also be fluent in Spanish, when raised in this type of community. The bilingual children can speak both languages, but may choose to speak a mixture of the two, which is a unifying factor within their group, and can be exclusionary to those who are monolingual. If the strong use of the Spanish language of the area continues, the second and third generations (and quite possibly fourth, fifth, etc...) will continue to learn and speak, and therefore preserve, the language that dominates the community. However, based on the observation that English was infiltrating the community because of the children's school experience, this may not be the case.

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