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Relearning a Lost Language

Growing numbers of Latinos are discovering the Spanish that assimilation took away. Whether to boost careers or social contacts, the new knowledge often closes a gap in their lives.

May 26, 1997|JOHN M. GONZALES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social worker Deanna Corral stood mute before immigrant foster children, unable to ease their fears in the Spanish she once knew.

Businessman Joe Ortiz pitched his product to Mexican chief executives in stammering street calo that rang weak next to their soaring, proper Espanol.

And construction worker Manuel Zapata ached to join his bilingual wife and in-laws when they switched from English to Spanish during family gatherings.

So like growing numbers of Southern California Latinos of their generation, Corral, Ortiz and Zapata have returned to the language that assimilation snatched away.

They are learning Spanish, boosting their careers and social contacts in a region where about a third of the population speaks the language and where business ties with Mexico and the rest of Latin America are booming. In the process, they are closing a gap that often has left them feeling inadequate, isolated from relatives or friends, unable to feel the depth of their own culture.

Corral, Ortiz and Zapata came of age in the 1960s and '70s, when many Spanish-speaking parents suffered discrimination and believed that their children would do better if they grew up speaking unaccented English. Like immigrants from other countries in other eras, these parents would not speak their native language to their children.

Hundreds of thousands of Latinos in the Southland know this dilemma. Among the sons and daughters of today's Latino immigrants, 28% speak only English at home, according to the most recent Census Bureau survey.

After two years of private Spanish lessons, Deanna Corral, a 25-year-old third-generation Mexican American, is beginning to recover the ineffable qualities she lost after childhood.

"My grandmother never learned English," she said. "But I sat with her the other day and we began to chat in Spanish. She told me the family history. I didn't understand everything, but that didn't matter.

"My grandmother hugged and kissed me and said: 'I thought you'd never hear these stories from my lips.' "

Growing up, Corral spent most of her Sundays inside an East L.A. church where Mass was celebrated in Spanish for her grandparents and others yet to learn the dominant language of their new land.

She recalls grade-school days when she understood the benedictions echoing within the cathedral, just as she sang the Mexican folk music played by her father, a professional musician and guitarronista of a mariachi trio.

But her dad's concern that bilingualism could compromise her English and block her foray into mainstream American society prevailed over her mother's insistence that it could help bring career success.

"My dad sings in Spanish and speaks it fluently," Corral said. "But I guess he was concerned that I would end up with an accent if he taught it to me. And that whites would look down on me because of that."

Work with a private El Monte foster care agency, where half of the parents and children are Spanish-speaking, spurred Corral to spend hundreds of dollars on courses at a Berlitz language center.

She has progressed to the intermediate level, bilingual enough to reassure frightened foster children, like 12- and 6-year-old immigrant sisters recently rescued from abusive parents.

"When they arrived at their new home, they were both crying," she said. "I convinced them in Spanish they would be safe here and I felt so satisfied."

While growing numbers of all Southern Californians are learning Spanish, the need is particularly pressing among Latinos.

Ramon Salcido, a USC sociologist specializing in Latino issues, said collapsing borders, globalization and the Latino migrant labor force has channeled many monolingual Latinos into courses or self-instruction.

Salcido, who founded a course last year to teach Spanish to Latino sociology students, noted that immigrant children were historically punished by teachers for speaking the home language in class.

"But that has changed," he said. "The case in L.A. is that you need Spanish to function. It gives corporations an advantage in the marketplace, so it's desirable again."

Indeed, career brought Joe Ortiz back to the language of his parents.

A second-generation Mexican American, Ortiz recalls large family gatherings at the Indio home of his childhood, where Spanish floated in the air with laughter and the scent of dishes still prepared in the style of his grandmother's birthplace, Zacatecas.

But in the Ensenada boardrooms where he works to establish a Baja California pager network for a North Hollywood telecommunications firm, rapid-fire business banter was too much for Ortiz to catch.

"One of the most frustrating things about doing business in Mexico was being looked at as a pocho," said Ortiz, 31, using a term for Mexican Americans perceived to have abandoned their heritage. "I was relying on some of my calo--my street Spanish--to express myself and because of that, native speakers were able to pigeonhole me as unrefined."

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