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Language among the Peruvian Community of Jackson Heights, Queens

Nicole Pasulka and Patryce Critz

         The residents of Jackson Heights, Queens live in a diverse, multi-ethnic community. Many of the people who call Jackson Heights home are of Greek, Middle Eastern, Korean, Chinese, Philippino and Latin American descent. In 1990 only slightly more than a third of the residents of Jackson Heights spoke only English at home. Twenty percent of the residents are Asian, while over forty percent of residents are Latinos. Spanish speakers come from over twelve different countries and in 1990 there were more families speaking Spanish at home than any other language, including English. For residents of this area, communication with speakers of many different languages affects their use of language. Though all people living is Jackson Heights must adapt linguistically, examination of the lifestyle and experience of Peruvians provides one example of the impact that the neighborhood has on a specific ethnic community. We interviewed the pastor of a neighborhood church, people working in an area grade school, local New York police officers, local business owners and residents of Jackson Heights. What we have found provides a glimpse into the experience of Peruvians living in this community.


         Peruvians in Jackson Heights find a large Spanish speaking community within the local church. From speaking with members of La Iglesia Universal del Reino we learned that the church acts as an aid to members of the Latin American community. It provides them with a place to practice their faith as well as a place to meet with other Latinos in the community. La Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios is a community church and it does offer mass in English, however, the majority of the congregation attends the Spanish mass offered four times a day. According to Pastor Emmanuel, most of the adults in the congregation are immigrants and do not speak fluent English, though the majority of their children learn English at school. Pastor Emmanuel has observed that many adult members of the congregation do not have the time to learn English because their time is spent providing for their families. He believes that within the Spanish-speaking, immigrant community of Jackson Heights children often serve as translators for their parents. Interestingly, at la Iglesia Universal del Renion de Dios children often attend mass in English. This may be an attempt to improve their ability in English or it may be the result of the children's assimilation into an American, English-speaking society.


         Pastor Emmanuel believes that most Peruvian children can speak English, though many of their parents cannot. These specific bilingual children have probably learned English in school. The school closest to la Iglesia Universal de Reino de Dios is P.S. 12, Colgate School. According to the people we spoke with, most of the students at P.S. 12 speak English, though many of their parents do not. The school offers translators for non-English speaking parents in all languages, except Hebrew, because they have yet to find a translator for that language. There are also multi-lingual administrative forms offered for those parents who cannot read or write in English.


         The police department in and around Jackson Heights provides translators for any language spoken in Queens, and they have many bilingual officers on the force. New York City offers police officers Spanish classes and most officers agree that having some command of the language is a great asset.


         People of many different ethnicities own business in Jackson Heights. On one block there were businesses representing up to six or seven different ethnicities. There were Filipino bakeries next door to Mexican groceries stores, across the street from Korean clothing stores. We observed that most of the people who work in or own these businesses are not native English speakers. However, there are non-native speakers of many different ethnicities all living together in Jackson Heights. We observed that Latin Americans shop in stores that are not owned by Latin Americans; similarly, non-Spanish speakers frequent Latino owned businesses. So then, how do people who own and work in these businesses communicate with their customers?

         We asked non-Spanish speakers how they communicate with their Latino customers. Many non-Spanish speakers said that though they could not speak Spanish fluently, they had learned enough Spanish to understand what a Spanish speaker might need. A clerk in an electronics store who was in his late twenties and of East Asian descent told us that because he took Spanish in college he was able to communicate somewhat with Spanish speakers. When he applied for the job, he was asked if he knew any Spanish and he was told that knowledge of Spanish would help him because of the high population of Spanish speakers living in the area. In many businesses owned by non-native speakers the owners or workers present may not have spoken any Spanish themselves, but there was almost always someone that workers or business owners could rely upon to translate if they absolutely could not communicate with a customer.

         In businesses owned by Latinos and in businesses owned by other ethnicities we found that children play an important role in facilitating communication between customers and their parents. In a Chinese restaurant that was family owned and operated, a woman told us that when her daughter was able to communicate with Spanish speakers because she was studying Spanish in school. In a flag shop we visited the owner's young daughter translated between her mother and ourselves. It appears that the children who are learning English in school and practicing English in church are using English to help their parents in their businesses.

         In Latino owned business, however, it did not appear that many people spoke languages other than Spanish and English. Since Spanish speakers are an overwhelming majority in Jackson Heights Latino business owners probably do not need to learn other languages in order to operate successful businesses. With knowledge of Spanish business owners are able to communicate with the majority of their patrons. When we asked a woman working in an Ecuadorian stereo store if she was able to communicate with people who do not speak Spanish or English she replied that the purpose of her store was to allow people to sample electronics from her country in order to determine if they want to order the appliances from distributors in Ecuador. A large Ecuadorian flag hung in the window, and though the presence of flags is not unusual in a Latin American business, it was implied that her customers were mainly Spanish speakers.

         As English speakers we were able to communicate at least somewhat with everyone we approached. This suggests that two people who do not have the same native language could potentially communicate in English provided that they both have some command of the language. Though we did not observe first hand any non-native English speakers using English to communicate with people of other ethnicities, it is possible that it is used when two people are unable to speak each other's native language and absolutely need to communicate.


         When we discuss the business relationships in Jackson Heights, Queens it is necessary to group all Spanish speaking people together in order to study the relationship between Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers. However, there are Latinos from all across South and Central America living in Jackson Heights. Since we are specifically examining the Peruvian linguistic experience in Jackson Heights it was necessary to speak with someone living in that neighborhood who identifies themselves as Peruvian. Leyla is a young woman around the age of twenty-five who came to America from Peru for the first time when she was twenty. Initially, Leyla came to the United States for a vacation and though she intends to pursue her education in American she has does not know if she will stay once she has graduated. She is currently studying business administration in New Jersey. She works at a Peruvian restaurant in Jackson Heights called Bajo el Puente. It was unclear why Leyla initially left Peru, but when she arrived in America she enrolled in Queen's College and began taking English classes. Leyla told us that she did not have difficulty learning English, however, she did feel that many times people discriminated against her because of her strong accent. Often she would ask for something and though she believed that people knew what she wanted, they pretended not to understand her.

         Leyla told us that in the community of Jackson Heights Peruvians socialize and interact with people from all different Latin American countries. Her own friends come from many different Latin American countries, and many non-Peruvians eat at the restaurant where she works because as she says, "not only Peruvians like Peruvian food." Leyla's parents speak some English and if she has children she will teach them both English and Spanish. We asked if she plans to learn any other language and she said that she was studying Russian in school.

         Almost two thousand of the thirty-seven thousand Latinos living in Jackson Heights are Peruvians. In 1990 over half of the population of Jackson Heights had been born outside of the United States. This infers that the majority's first language was not English. Despite the fact that English is the prima facie in America, in Jackson Heights it is the first language of a minority of people. One does not even have to know English to run a business in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights. Many storeowners, when communicating with a language other than their native tongue, are more likely to speak Spanish than English. However, Spanish is found not only in business, there are billboard advertisements in Spanish and Spanish speakers can read "El diario" New York's Latino newspaper.

         As we learned through our study of the Peruvian community, a dominant language has emerged in Jackson Heights despite its multi-linguistic character. For Peruvians, Spanish is the language most used in both America and in Peru. It is clear that a Peruvian, or other non-English speaker, can move to American and not learn English. This is, at least in part, because the younger generation speaks English and facilitates communication among non-English speaking immigrants. Though many people living and working in Queens have difficulty communicating with one another the abundance of bilingual young people not only helps residents communicate, but also helps to unify the multi-ethnic area.

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