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Mexican American Communities in New York City

Mynor Gonzalez and Nancy Levine

     In the following pages we have organized our research on the linguistic habits and patterns of the Mexican community located around 116th Street and 2nd Avenue. Our focus is on the primarily languages used for everyday interactions, weather it be for social or business reasons. Most of our research is based on interviews of a diverse group of people living and working in this primarily Mexican community. It is collaboration between us, two students of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds

     I, Mynor Gonzalez, am a fluent speaker of Spanish and English, Spanish being my first language. I was born in Guatemala and grew up in New York City. Through the city's school system I learned English. From personal experience I can relate to families with students in NYC's "English Language Learners" programs. My fluency in Spanish enabled us to broaden our research by talking to the people of the community in their native language.

     I, Nancy Levine, grew up speaking English at home, however I do have an intermediate command over the Spanish Language. This comes from a variety of different sources: living in California, growing up with and going to school with Mexican immigrants, and living in Cuzco, Peru for a semester. My background allowed me to follow the interviews we conducted in Spanish; however, my response was limited. Because I traveled with Mynor when we did our field studies and because it was obvious to the people that I had some kind of command over their language, I never felt like our participants were prejudice towards me, being a non-native speaker.

     From our observations of schools, government services, businesses and community centers, we have found that this community favors Spanish speakers, and accommodates English speakers. The total population of the area between E119th and E111th streets and 1st and 3rd avenues is around 6,471. Mexicans make about 34% of this population . The following pages present our findings in categories we felt were covered in our community.


     New York City (NYC) schools use both "English as a Second Language" (ESL), and "bilingual education," programs to educate "English Language Learners" (ELL's). ESL is a modified English immersion program for speakers of many languages, wherein the student takes special courses to help them advance in English skills while they take a rather traditional curriculum in English. Bilingual education programs on the other hand, allow the Spanish-speaking students to take their courses in Spanish, while learning English in a special class. Typically, bilingual education students spend as little as 120 minutes per week in English classes. NYC aims to have students spend no more than three years in ELL programs.

     The public schools located in our selected region of study included Manhattan Center High School and James Weldon Johnson Elementary. Both schools have an overwhelming Hispanic population, which makes up approximately 60% of its student body. Even though recent immigrants (those immigrated to the U.S. within the last three years) compose about 3% of the student population in each school, bilingual education and ESL are offered in both schools; approximately 11% of the students at J.W. Johnson, and 10% of those at Manhattan Center are enrolled in the ELL programs . Most of the students in the schools are comfortable learning in English; however, English and Spanish are not the only languages spoken by the students of these schools. We interviewed two elementary school children, Arlene and Nuria, who attended J.W. Johnson Elementary. Arlene was enrolled in the bilingual education program and then immersed into regular English classes in the 5th grade, while Nuria is currently taking bilingual classes. Nuria attends five days of English classes, five days of class in Spanish. They mentioned that most of the students were of Black and Hispanic descent; however, they did acknowledge that there was an Asian population. The both observed that the Asian students spoke in their native language to one another, and would use English to speak with non-Asian students.      I (Mynor Gonzalez) am a former student of Manhattan Center. My experience is similar to that of Arlene and Nuria in that the school was composed mainly of Hispanics and African Americans, while Asians and Whites were in the minority. Mostly English was used, but nearly all of the Hispanic population was bilingual. The Asian population spoke to one another in their native tongue, and organized an "Asian Club" in the school. It was not until I befriended people belonging to the club that I learned Chinese was the language that they spoke.

     Based on our interviews and information gathered about the local high school, we believe that most of the students of the public schools in our area are either English only or bilingual speakers. Hispanics are the dominant population in the schools, which corresponds to the census data about the general population. Going in to further depth with our interviews we observed a developing pattern between the communication between bilingual students and their families.

Family Dynamics

     The ages of the bilingual students interviewed in ELL programs range from 10 to 19 years old. Through the interviews, it has come to our attention that they choose to speak in English with their peers, while speaking only in Spanish to their elders. For example, Haronil Estevez, a former student of Manhattan Center, a bilingual speaker (English & Spanish), and a resident of the neighborhood for almost 5 years, is inclined to speak in English with his siblings, yet he uses Spanish when speaking to his mother regardless of his mother's proficiency in English. All of Haronil's siblings are also bilingual; he has observed that they have a tendency to use English first when conversing with other Hispanic youths, and Spanish first to talk with the elders of the community. He summarizes, "English to the young, and Spanish to the old."

     We also interviewed a number of parents whose children are either still in the public school system or have graduated from it. In order for their children to communicate with them they insist on them speaking Spanish. The parents seem to believe that this is a way to maintain some of their cultural roots. For instance, one parent whose child is not yet old enough to join public school mentioned that she would put her daughter in bilingual class in order to learn English and maintain her ability to speak Spanish. In analyzing the median family income of this neighborhood , this region can be classified as a working class neighborhood, therefore making it difficult for parents and adults to find the time and patience to learn English.

     Sunday masses in the local Christian churches are presided in either Spanish or English. In the Spanish Mass, the readings and preaching are predominately done in Spanish, however the Father would switch between languages, with translation. Parents typically attend the Spanish mass and bring along their children who are likely bilingual speakers. Perhaps switching back and forth is the Father's way of connecting with bilingual children who, for the most part, speak more English than Spanish in their everyday lives. After the Mass, announcements about activities/social gatherings intended for the children are usually made in English first and then repeated in Spanish. In the English mass, the switching of language is very unlikely.

Other Languages

     Of course the primary language in the Mexican community is Spanish; however, other foreign languages could be found lurking in the businesses. The first was a Guinean man who owned a street-side store selling souvenirs and miscellaneous clothing and accessories. Surrounded by other Spanish speaking vendors, this native Guinean spoke foremost French, English by necessity, and knew select Spanish vocabulary words that he was able to pick up from his working environment. Simple numbers and nouns helped him to communicate with his patrons, who, for the most part, were Spanish speakers. In "La Pharmacia" we found the owner/pharmacist was a French African man who did not speak any Spanish. He has been in the United States for three years and speaks fluent English, which he learned in school and perfected in the states. In order to communicate with his patrons he keeps a Spanish-speaking employee in the front of the store. This is sometimes a problem, he told us, because patrons often want to speak directly with the pharmacist about their medications. The young woman in the front of the store was a native Mexican who spoke little English. The pharmacist commented that sometimes she had trouble communicating to Spanish speakers of a different country; she argued that she never has had a problem.

     To our even greater surprise, two other languages we found were Arabic and Italian. We walked into a tiny deli in the community to hear Arabic being spoken between the two men working there. We found that these men speak Arabic in their homes, but had studied English in school. Like the street vendor, they had picked up some Spanish just from working in the community. We also found an Italian newspaper among the other Spanish and English newspapers for sale, but never encountered any Italian speakers. In fact, Italians were not even included in the Manhattan Demographic Statistics done by the libraries in the area. Some of the Mexicans of the community also spoke their indigenous tongue, Zapotec. The first time we discovered Zapotec was in the neighborhood video store "Videos Mexicans". The woman working the cash register was from Pueblo, Mexico, and has been in the States for seven years. She spoke no English, but mentioned that she spoke Zapoteco, what she defined as a dialect from Pueblo. Technically we found that Zapotec is a living aboriginal language of Mexico, much like the Aztec and Mayan native languages. It is quite different from Spanish in that it is a tonal language, richer in sound and pronunciation than the European romantic languages. After speaking to the woman from Pueblo, we recognized it being used on a sign for the barbershop "Xochitl". Presuming it to be some form of indigenous dialect, we went inside to question the origin of this word. After speaking with a barber, we found that Xochitl is a Zapoteco word, which translates to "flor" in Spanish or "flower" in English. The barber was from Mexico and spoke Spanish. Although he himself did not speak Zapotec he knew people in the community who did. He also joked about having trouble communicating with Dominicans in the community because of the ways in which they speak Spanish in contrast to his manner of speaking.

Government Services

     Around 116th and 2nd government services such as Hospitals and Police departments have to accommodate Spanish speakers. We chose to interview local Hispanic business people and the elderly about the support of the above-mentioned services. None of them expressed frustration with government services when questioned about the institutions' ability to communicate with Spanish speaking individuals. The major hospital servicing our area is Metropolitan Hospital; they offer translators for Spanish speakers. It is unknown if the hospital offers assistance in any other languages besides Spanish. The same people were asked about the local police department, and similar answers were given.

     The local bank, a Citibank branch, was like the other services: Spanish speakers are once again obliged. There were signs in both English and Spanish, however other languages seemed to be overlooked. Those individuals who speak another language besides Spanish must be forced to use English in order to communicate in such places.

Community Services

     The major community center in the area was "La Guardia Memorial House". This center offers many services particularly for Spanish speaking families. The programs include: literacy classes, math classes (in Spanish), job searching, foster care, and after school programs for students of all ages and levels. The after school programs are split by age and focus. For ages 6-12 they have what they call a "preventative" program, "upward bound" for 13-19 year olds, job training for 20-29 year olds, and Casita Maria is the senior center affiliated with La Guardia Memorial. The programs are funded by a variety of different sources, some federal, some state, and some city money goes into the center depending on the program. The administrator we spoke to reported that about 50% of the staff was bilingual, and that their focus was English immersion. Arlene and Nuria, our students from J.W. Johnson Elementary attended the after school program there.

     Another private service in the area was the neighborhood Vet clinic. We were able to speak to the doctor on duty during that time, which was fortunate because the clinic is only open a few nights a week, and on the weekends due to low overhead. The vet himself did not speak any Spanish, but says he has used translators from the downstairs pet store. For the most part the patrons bring in cats and dogs, and they are able to communicate what the problem is. Nevertheless, he felt strongly that people in general should have command over the native language of the country and insisted, "...it could save lives".


     In our study of the Mexican community around 116th Street and 2nd Avenue, we observed that most of the residents were fluently Spanish speakers. As a result, monolingual Spanish speaking consumers would reasonably have no difficulty purchasing goods or services. If, occasionally, businesspeople were not able to communicate with their customers, there would likely be a translator available or have helpful signs. We found this to also be true for all the government services we investigated. We were surprised to find other languages such as Arabic, French and Italian in the area, because we were unable to find families or residents (who were not business owners) who spoke these languages. We did not find Asian-owned markets or residences despite a small but significant Asian population in the public schools. Through our interviews we infer that most of the children who have spent some time in the public schools in the area are bilingual (Spanish & English) speakers. As a result, these children tend to speak in English to one another, and because for the most part their parents lack English proficiency, they must speak Spanish to their parents. This also ensures the parents that their children will be forever connected to their culture.

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