Language slows assimilation of Hispanics


DURHAM, N.C. - "Name a food you have never eaten," instructor Dawn Morgenstern said slowly to the three Mexican women, all learning to speak English.

Even more slowly, 29-year-old Angelica Cortes replied, "I have never eaten ..."

"Think of something. A bat?" the teacher said, flapping her hands as if she were one of the furry creatures.

"I have never eaten a bat," Cortes said, haltingly, laughing at the thought.

"I haven't either," the teacher said.

The language barrier is falling, word by word, here at El Centro Hispano.

The English-language classes sponsored in this downtown community center and elsewhere across Durham by the local community college are so crowded they're turning away students. That's an indication, educators say, that Hispanics in growing numbers are seeking to overcome one of the most basic yet daunting barriers to assimilation in the United States.

Even so, experts say, rising tensions over the language barrier are playing out in restaurants, grocery stores, classrooms, government offices and many other places where Hispanics' inability to speak English collides with Americans' inability to understand Spanish.

In North Carolina, which in the 1990s had the nation's fastest- growing Hispanic population, roughly half of the Hispanics moving here are coming from other U.S. states. The other half are coming from other countries.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociologist James Johnson said "a relatively high percentage" of the newly arrived Hispanics from other countries do not speak English.

'The front end'

As difficult as the language transition has been for both immigrants and Americans, he warned, "This is just the front end of the wave of immigrants, not the back end. Many of them are young people, of child-bearing age, and there is no guarantee that North Carolina and the South as a whole are going to be prepared for the immigration-driven population change."

A decade of economic prosperity in many parts of the South drew large numbers of Hispanics.

Cities from Atlanta to Rogers, Ark., have begun celebrating Cinco de Mayo, the May 5 holiday marking Mexico's victory over French forces in 1862.

Many U.S. companies use the independence day holiday as an opportunity to make special pitches to the Hispanic community.

The disposable income of Hispanics jumped 118 percent during the 1990s to $452 billion in 2001, according to a study by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

In Georgia, the population of Hispanics rose from 110,000 in 1990 to 435,000 in 2000. North Carolina's 1990 population of 77,000 Hispanics surged to 379,000 last year.

Johnson said he believes the 2000 Census undercounted Hispanics, suggesting their population in North Carolina could be as high as 500,000.

The Hispanic population increase here in Durham, a city of 187,000 people, was even more staggering: a nearly 900 percent gain from 1,610 in 1990 to 16,012 last year.

Indeed, it's hard to drive a rural mile or a single block in cities such as Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Atlanta without seeing Hispanics.

They're often working - mowing lawns, picking vegetables, building houses, flipping burgers - jobs that don't require English proficiency. But when they leave work, the immigrants often find the lack of proficiency a burden when trying to make change in stores, or qualify for drivers' licenses, or find higher-skilled jobs.

Their lack of English proficiency - and, in some cases, their illiteracy - makes Hispanics "victims of abuse, including bad checks from employers and underpayment for work," said Pepe Caudillo, a reporter for La Conexion, a Spanish-language newspaper in Raleigh.

"It is necessary to know other people and their country," said Susana Escamilla, 50, a Mexican studying English in downtown Durham. Added her classmate, Angelica Cortes, "I want to help my son in school."

Missing from the lives of Hispanics who do not speak English, instructor Morgenstern said, is the ability to make friends among American neighbors.

'So many hopes'

"They have so many hopes," Morgenstern said. "They so desperately want to communicate."

But a more criticial view is also common in the South, according to researchers, who say some native Southerners feel uncomfortable around people who do not speak English.

That was a finding of a poll by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school five years ago. The survey of 665 randomly selected North Carolinians found that 55 percent did not feel comfortable around people who do not speak English. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Legislators are taking up the debate over how far government should go to accommodate immigrants who do not speak English. Recently, the North Carolina House of Representatives voted 67-46 to provide Spanish ballot instructions in communities where Hispanics constitute 6 percent or more of the population. Under the 2000 Census, 18 of North Carolina's 100 counties would fall in that category.

Some legislators disagreed sharply. "I don't see why we don't allow our language, the English language, to be the language you need when voting," said state House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry, a Johnston County Republican and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate last year.

State House Majority Leader Phil Baddour, a Wayne County Democrat, countered, "We are reaching out a welcome mat to make the first generation [of immigrants] feel like a part of our country."

In the nearly six months since opening the Mexican consulate office in Raleigh, serving more than 250,000 Mexicans in North Carolina and South Carolina, Consul Carolina Zaragoza Flores has visited communities with rising Hispanic populations and rising tensions, driven partly by the language barrier.

'An important word'

She said she is "not surprised" by critical attitudes, such as those expressed in the North Carolina Legislature. But she added, "Tolerance could be an important word."

Learning English for Mexicans "is important, very important," she said. "But for Mexicans who speak Spanish but don't know how to write it, it is going to be difficult for them to learn a second language."

To help recently immigrated children learn to read as they begin school, Flores said the consulate is supplying Spanish-language books to public school classrooms. Those help Hispanic children learn grammar and other reading skills in their native language, making it easier for them to learn English, she said.

Some people here in Durham who speak English are learning Spanish. City Hall, for instance, arranges Spanish lessons for police and other city employees who increasingly deal with Hispanics.

Buddy Whitfield, a Durham land developer, carries with him an English/Spanish dictionary. It helps him communicate with Hispanics involved in every phase of building houses and subdivisions, from digging foundation footings to planting shrubs.

"One or the other of us has to learn to speak either Spanish or English," said Whitfield, who, at 70, is brushing up on his college Spanish from a half a century ago. "If the Mexicans weren't here, we could not build anything."

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