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Survival Without English:
Salvadorans living in Washington Heights

Miki Fernandez and Jenny Reyes

     To many, the area in upper Manhattan known as Washington Heights is synonymous with the term "Little D.R." because of the high concentration of Dominicans in the area. While the population in Washington Heights is highly Dominican, there is another Spanish speaking group who also calls Washington Heights home. They are the Salvadorans. Although this group has a small presence in Washington Heights, compared to the Dominicans, They also live and work in the area. In fact, according to the Newest New Yorker 1995-1996 (a census data information book), there were only 2.2% entries into the US by Central Americans including Salvadorans in the year 1995-96 (pg 4). Furthermore, The 1990-1994 edition of the same book revealed that of the Salvadorans who do enter the US, the majority of them do not settle in New York City (pg 11). These are some reasons why the number of Salvadorans in the area is limited. For the Salvadorians who live in Washington Heights, English is not a necessity as Spanish is the primary language of the area, and many services and organizations in the community cater to Spanish speakers such as, schools, government offices, hospitals, social facilities, and local businesses.

     Upon visiting Washington Heights it is very easy to assume that many of the children are Spanish-speakers. We visited P.S. 128 and found that there are many children who are non-native English speakers. In fact, 25% of the children in this school have very limited or no knowledge of English and 80% of the student body knows Spanish. The school guidance counselor stated that "98% of the non-English speakers speak Spanish as their native language. Most of them are coming from the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries including El Salvador. The other 2% speak Chinese and Bengali."

     The children that are not native English-speakers have to attend bilingual classes. Those bilingual classes serve as transitions, and help them learn English. Part of the bilingual program (which is only offered in Spanish) is ESL or English as Second Language, in which students are taught how to speak, write, read, and understand English. According to the school, it takes children 3 to 5 years to leave bilingual program and become part of the monolingual (English only) classes, which make up 75% of the student population. We have to keep in mind that 80% of the students have some knowledge of Spanish, so the rate at which they learn English depends on their age and their exposure to English outside of school.

     Government agencies also provide services for Spanish speakers. For example, an Officer from the 33rd Precinct revealed that it is mandatory for Police officers in the five boroughs to carry a handbook containing Spanish phrases. Interestingly enough, this booklet is only mandatory in the Spanish language. In the event that an officer lacks the knowledge of certain Spanish words, he/she can refer to the handbook. This may be the case during an arrest, where it is obligated that the suspect's rights be read in their native language. Furthermore, officers are placed according to their language knowledge. That is, Spanish-speaking officers are placed in Spanish speaking neighborhoods, while Chinese-speaking officers are placed in Chinese speaking neighborhoods, and so on and so fort. Thus, Salvadorians in need of police assistant will be happy to find Spanish speaking police officers in the Washington Heights area.

     In addition, the local libraries make available workshops, publications and special events in Spanish. There is even an ESL course at one of the local libraries. Post offices too print their information in Spanish and employ Spanish speakers. Thus, proving the point that there are many resources available to assist the Salvadorian community in Washington Heights, where Spanish is given the same, if not more priority than English.

     Because Washington Heights is a Spanish-speaking community, hospitals and clinics supply interpreters for those who cannot speak or understand English. We visited Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center to see what the situation was here. At this hospital there is a volunteer program of interpreters. These interpreters are highly trained and they work throughout the hospital and the community to assist those that have very limited English. Ariel Lenarduzzi, a representative of this organization revealed that there are interpreters available who are fluent in about 160 languages. The staff also participates in something called a language bank. This program requires the Doctors and Physicians report all of the languages they master. According to the languages they know, they are grouped with patients who need translations in those languages. Although there are translators available in many languages, Spanish is the most requested, with 90% of the interpretations being in Spanish. When asked if patients have any trouble with the different Spanish dialects, Mr. Lenarduzzi answered by saying "Most patients come from the Dominican Republic, those that come from other Spanish speaking countries pick up the Dominican dialect, different dialects are not a problem." We found this to be true for many Salvadorans in this community, as time goes by they adopt the Dominican dialect, as this is the dominant dialect in the community.

     Educational, governmental, and medical institutions are not the only facilities that offer services in Spanish. Social establishments and services enable Salvadorians and other Spanish speakers to lead rich social lives in their language. The Churches in the area for example accommodate Spanish speakers by providing mass in Spanish. The Spanish Fort Washington 7th Day Adventist Church, for example operates on a solely Spanish basis, while at the Church of Our Lady Esperanza Church, English mass is held only on Sundays. Aside from the primary role of Church as a place of worship, Often times church serves as a gathering place for Spanish speakers and a place in which to participate in different social activities, such as prayer groups, bible study, community service projects, and outings. In addition, entertainment is available in Spanish. Not only are there TV channels and radio stations in Spanish, but many Salvadorans enjoy the performances of Spanish artists when they make appearances in the local restaurants and clubs.

     Moreover, Spanish speakers in Washington heights have a wide array of Magazines and newspapers from which to read to keep abreast on current events, and fanfare. Some of the most popular include TV Y Novelas, Furia Musical, Vanidades, all of which are magazines, and Noticias Del Mundo and El Diario, both of which are Newspapers. All of these and many other Spanish publications are available at the local Newsstands. Services such as these allow all Salvadorians and all Spanish speakers in the community the chance to live a well -rounded life, not limited due to lack of English.

     To walk around Washington Heights feels like being in Spanish-speaking country. Most local businesses (e.g. stores, restaurants) are owned by Spanish-speakers. Most of the signs and advertisements are written in Spanish or in both English and Spanish. People walk down the street speaking Spanish, employees will greet you in Spanish or in broken English. Most of these individuals come from the Dominican Republic but we found some businesses owned by Salvadorans. One of these Salvadoran owned businesses is a restaurant called "Rincon Centro Americano" or in English, Central American corner. This restaurant only sells food from El Salvador. All of the employees that work here come from El Salvador, and as you will see, have very limited English.

     We interviewed one of the employees that works at this restaurant, and this is her story. Marta has been in the United States for fifteen years. She speaks Spanish and does not know English. Because she can communicate perfectly in Spanish with other people, she feels no need to learn English. In Marta's words "If I go to the bank the cashiers speak Spanish, the same with the post office, the hospital, and of course at my job. There are always people that speak Spanish so I do not need to learn English." She said she is planning to learn English, but not out of necessity. At her job in the restaurant, English is not required because most, if not all of her customers speak Spanish. Like Marta, the other employees at this restaurant do not speak English.

     Since Marta's situation is common in this community, we decided to look at someone that needed to learn English for survival. Roberto came from El Salvador 10 years ago. He decided to move to Washington Heights because since he did not know much English, it would be easy for him to get around in this Spanish-speaking neighborhood. He lives on 168th street in Manhattan with his wife Rosa and his 3 Children: Jenny (7), Robert (5), and Amy (2). Roberto works at a Pizza shop at Rockefeller Center. As he said " I had to learn English in order to be able to work here and communicate with the customers and my employer. At home I speak Spanish, since my wife does not know English. My children learn English at school and Spanish at home." His children are first-generation Americans, and up to this point they are growing up bilingual. Although Roberto lives in Washington Heights, he had to learn English for his job, which requires interaction in this language.

     Washington Heights is home to many immigrant groups, which have one thing in common, language. Salvadorans are one of these groups. They live, work, learn, and maintain vibrant social lives in this community. Most of the children in the area schools are Spanish speakers, government agencies provide assistance in Spanish, hospitals have interpreters for patients who speak Spanish (as well as other languages), social facilities such as Churches serve as a spiritual as well as a social setting for members of the community. Likewise, there are numerous Spanish publications in this neighborhood, as well as local businesses owned by Spanish speakers like Salvadorans. In sum, many people who live in Washington Heights do not have a need to learn English, this is because English is not the dominant language in this community.

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