Saturday, January 13, 2024

Unspoken fears: S.A.’s decline in Spanish speakers stirs community concerns

This is a very important piece on the vitality of the Spanish language in Texas. The rate of alleged "Spanish-language loss" is held up to scrutiny with not all agreeing whether this is reality or a measurement error. Another interpretation is compositional, meaning that it's not so much that Spanish is on the decline, but rather that places like San Antonio and perhaps Austin are increasingly comprised of third-generation Latinas/os that are less likely to speak Spanish. This maps on to the fact of growing cities that bring in increased numbers of non-Spanish speaking individuals. 

Still, others don't believe the numbers, saying that they're sensing a high demand, for instance, in San Antonio ISD, for dual language programs. I sense the same here in Austin, as well. Of clear concern for all is the real possibility of any decline in the aggregate, especially considering the importance of Spanish as a state and world language.

Regardless of data and interpretation, this is a historic problem that connects not just to prior legal prohibitions toward the Speaking of Spanish in our state, but also to existing structural dynamics with education policy itself—outside of dual language programs—not sufficiently supportive of fully-vested bilingualism and biliteracy. In my own work (Valenzuela, 1999), I term this "subtractive schooling," where schools are more about taking away one's fluency and culture than they are about adding and expanding upon these from an asset-based perspective. 

These concerns are felt personally, often accompanied with a great deal of anguish. It is a significant loss for children not to be able to communicate with their grandparents. It's also frequently humiliating when people expect you to speak Spanish simply because you're brown despite a long history of language oppression in our state and nation that continues into the present.

These concerns are what motivated us to start our Saturday school, Academia Cuauhtli here in Texas back in 2013. We are entering our tenth year of existence and know that we are making a dent in Austin, Texas, by encouraging a love of Spanish, beginning with a pedagogy anchored in children loving themselves and the multiple identities that they possess.

As a Mexican American/Latinx/o civil rights community, we have fought long and hard for our right to our bilingualism, and biculturalism. From our perspective, it's less about economic gain, and more about the wealth of our identities and pushing back against the self that so many of our schools reject. It's our God-given right. 

In fact, we should be expanding this agenda to include, as well, Indigenous tongues, especially considering the more recent waves of immigration from the Americas comprised of individuals that speak their natal tongues, many of whom are trilingual but reduced to being "Mexican," "Central American," or "South American" in society with little to no sensitivity to the cultural and linguistic wealth that they bring. Incidentally, this is not just a Texas or U.S. problem, but a hemispheric and global one, as well.

While our work is far from over, the possibilities are plentiful. At least we all cohere on the idea that language and culture are what make us interesting and strong. Indeed, bilingualism, multilingualism, and multiculturalism are our superpowers!

-Angela Valenzuela


Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: US-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. NY: State University of New York Press.

The percentage of people who speak Spanish is dropping. That may have real cultural and economic impacts on the city, local leaders say.

By Liz TeitzRicardo DelgadoLibby Seline,Staff writersDec 28, 2023

Students at Washington Irving Dual Language Academy cheer for Principal Mayra Gutierrez-Ibarra on Dec. 14, thanking her for implementing a "pajamas day" for students. The school is part of San Antonio Independent School District, which is seeing increased demand for dual language programs that teach students core subjects like math and reading in both English and Spanish. Josie Norris, San Antonio Express-News

Like many bilingual children, Alicia Reyes-Barriéntez lived in two worlds.

At church and at home, she spoke Spanish, her Mexican mother’s native tongue. But the rest of her world in Texas demanded English.

“I knew that I needed to talk like the white kids to be respected by my white teachers,” said Reyes-Barriéntez, who grew up in Laredo. “It’s not that I didn’t want to be Mexican. I just wanted the privilege of being white, the privilege of being in the dominant group.”

But Reyes-Barriéntez always felt pride in being bilingual, saying it was second nature to her and her two siblings. Now raising two kids of her own in San Antonio, she wants them to learn both languages, too. 

“One of the priorities in raising our children has been for them to also be fully bilingual and bicultural,” she said.

But it hasn’t been an easy journey for the political science professor and her husband, who speaks some Spanish but isn’t as fluent. When she speaks to her 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in Spanish, they can understand her, but they have more trouble speaking it themselves, she said. 

“I imagined that my children would be completely fluent by now,” she said. “They’re not, which is disheartening.” 

Reyes-Barriéntez wants to make sure her children aren’t part of a trend in the San Antonio area: A dip in the percentage of residents who speak Spanish. 

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that as the San Antonio metro area grows, the percentage of residents who speak Spanish is going down.

It’s a troubling trend for many in San Antonio, a place where Spanish language and Hispanic culture run deep, tracing back to the city’s roots as part of the Spanish empire, then part of Mexico, as well as its proximity to Latin America. Community leaders and academic experts say the shift raises questions about the region’s culture and future, and also has the potential to be a drag on the region’s economy.

“Not teaching Spanish is always a loss,” said Alfredo Avalos, coordinator for community and culture at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico’s San Antonio branch. “Opportunities can be lost, along with culture.”

Across all age groups

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Spanish speakers in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area is gradually falling, though it remains the highest among similar-sized cities.

Between 2018 and 2022, 30.8% of people in the metro area over the age of 5 spoke Spanish at home. That was down from just over 33% between 2013 and 2017. That’s according to the American Community Survey, which is conducted by the Census Bureau in five-year intervals. The data show the continuation of a decline that’s been observed for the past decade: in 2012, more than 35% of metro area residents spoke Spanish. 

About 13% of people in the United States speak Spanish, while about 29% of Texans speak the language, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. 

San Antonio’s 2.45 percentage point drop in the share of Spanish speakers was the largest among U.S. metro areas with 2.25 million to 2.85 million residents. The next-largest drop was Austin, which saw a 1.59 percentage point decline.

In the San Antonio area, the largest decline was among residents age 18 to 64, where the percentage of Spanish speakers fell from 35.6% in 2017 to 32.8% in 2022. Among children ages 5 to 17, the share that speaks Spanish fell from 23.3% in 2017 to 20.7% in 2022. In the 65 and older age group, the share of Spanish speakers fell by 1.2 percentage points. 

Not everyone trusts the data: Graciela Sánchez, executive director of San Antonio nonprofit Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, questions the census numbers. Spanish speakers might not have wanted to respond or identify themselves, she said, and she said she thinks the coronavirus pandemic had an effect on responses. The Hispanic or Latino population was undercounted by 4.99%, according to the Census Bureau. 

“I’ve never spoken more Spanish in the community,” Sánchez said, especially compared with 20 years ago, when it seemed like fewer people, and young people in particular, were speaking it. She said she’s also seeing more people demand access to Spanish translators in places like San Antonio City Hall and hospitals, so they can communicate in the language they’re most comfortable in, she said.

The census data show the size of the decline has varied around the region. Within San Antonio city limits, the percentage of Spanish speakers fell by about 2.2 percentage points, and in New Braunfels, it declined by about 1.4 percentage points. In some parts of the metro area, however, the percentage increased: in Schertz, for example, the percentage of the population that speaks Spanish at home increased from about 11% in 2017 to more than 17% in 2022, and in Helotes, it increased from about 10% to about 14%. 

Demographic changes

Experts say the shift reflects multiple external factors, ranging from demographic changes to generational losses.

Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer, pointed to the region’s rapid growth as one explanation. The overall number of Spanish speakers in the metro area increased by nearly 6,000, even though the percentage fell, which Potter attributed to the arrival of more new residents who don’t speak Spanish. 

He and Rogelio Sáenz, a professor of sociology and demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the decline also reflects changes in language use across generations. 

In San Antonio, “we have a high percentage of Latinos who were born in the U.S.,” Sáenz said, and a lower percentage of Latinos born outside the country than in other Texas cities, such as Houston and Dallas. In Bexar County, 15% of the Hispanic or Latino population is foreign-born, according to the census data, compared with 40% in Dallas County, 39% in Harris County and 27% in Travis County. 

In families that have been in the country for a longer time, there’s often an increase in the use of English and a decline in Spanish, Sáenz said. While parents and grandparents may have spoken Spanish, for example, their children and grandchildren might not have learned it, or lost the skills before passing them on. 

Whitney Chappell, an associate professor of modern languages and literatures at UTSA, called it the “three-generation shift,” a trend in linguistics that could account for current and future declines in the percentage of Spanish speakers in an area. The third generation of immigrant families are mainly dominant English speakers, often speaking little to no Spanish, Chappell said. Some might be “receptive bilinguals,” people who understand a language but can’t respond to it in the same language.

She said she sees this trend in her neighborhood in the near West Side of San Antonio — grandparents speak to their grandchildren in Spanish, but the younger generation can only respond in English. 

Some of that stems from a legacy of punishment and stigmatization of the language, and policies that forced past generations to use only English, Chappell said. Some of those grandparents were part of the generations that were punished for speaking Spanish outside of the house.

“They literally had the Spanish beat out of them,” Chappell said. “You don’t see that happen anymore, thankfully. But we still see psychological violence and pressure to assimilate to English, which is why we have that three-generation shift.”

Sáenz taught at Texas A&M University for more than two decades, and said a number of Latino students there told him their parents were humiliated or punished for speaking Spanish at school. They wanted to protect their children from that by not teaching them the language, he said. 

Language loss also occurs over time as younger generations spend time in environments where they hear and use Spanish less often — in school, in mass media, in their communities  — which can accelerate the decline, Sáenz said.

At San Fernando Cathedral in downtown San Antonio, the generational divide can be seen by who attends the church’s Spanish-language Masses each week. The crowds skew older for the two Sunday Masses in Spanish, while the crowds tend to be younger for the English and bilingual services, said the Rev. Carlos Berardo Velázquez, the church’s rector.

While the church provides more options for English and bilingual Mass — those are offered daily, compared to the two Spanish-only Masses each Sunday — the services in Spanish are “by far” the best attended, Velázquez said.

Even with the decline shown by the census data, Velázquez  — who was raised in San Antonio and has spent more than 30 years in the city’s archdiocese  — said he thinks Spanish is alive and well in San Antonio.

“I (don’t) think that’s as big of a fear as it would be as if we were talking French, or German, or Russian,” he said. “Because we’re not that close to France, to Germany and to Russia — but we’re very close to Mexico, and some other Spanish-speaking countries.”

But other San Antonio residents say they are worried about the long-term cultural implications of a continuing decline in the percentage of people who speak Spanish.

‘Important aspect’

Alicia Martinez, who is Reyes-Barriéntez’s mother, is one of the people who have experienced the generational loss of the language in their own families.

Her dream was for her three children to study in the United States, she said, but she taught them Spanish at home.

It was important for her to ensure her children kept her native language, as well as the customs, values and traditions. She said she wants that for her grandchildren, so she speaks Spanish with them.

The language and the cultural knowledge go hand-in-hand, Reyes Barriéntez said. “It’s not everything that we are as a culture, but it’s an important aspect of our culture,” she said.

Loss of Spanish can challenge relationships, Sáenz said. When younger generations can’t fully communicate with parents or grandparents, “there’s that loss of closeness that takes place.” 

“I do hear a lot of young people lamenting that they never could communicate in a very intimate way with their grandparents,” he said. “That represents a very emotional loss that people face.”

In a city like San Antonio, English and Spanish have to coexist, said Avalos, of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico’s San Antonio branch. Commonly known as UNAM, the school is the oldest and largest university in Mexico, and has operated a campus in San Antonio since 1944.

Preserving diverse cultures makes the United States stronger, Avalos said.

“The U.S. isn’t a monolingual country, as some would have you believe,” Avalos said in Spanish. “It’s always been a nation of languages. Each wave of immigrants brings their language, their culture. The preservation of that culture — not just Hispanic culture, but all the cultures here in the U.S. — is important because it makes us a diverse nation. A strong nation. An interesting one.”

It’s also an economic issue, Sáenz said. Speaking more than one language is increasingly seen as an asset in the business world and in consumer markets, he said, especially with San Antonio’s place in the South Texas Triangle, a region of more than 10 million people, encompassing northern Mexico. 

“The extent to which you have these declines in Spanish use and bilingualism represents not only a cultural and an ethnic loss, but also an economic loss for the state as well,” he said.

‘An essential language’

Despite the shift in the use of Spanish, Avalos said he believes Latino culture still thrives in San Antonio. He pointed to the crowds of people attending Muertos Fest in November for Día de los Muertos, and said UNAM San Antonio’s Spanish courses aren’t struggling to fill classrooms.

Learning a second language is a privilege for native English speakers, Avalos said — something to be celebrated. To non-native speakers, it’s the bare minimum required to survive, let alone progress in American society, he said. For some UNAM students, learning the language now is a way to reclaim it, because they weren’t allowed to speak it growing up, he said. 

Spanish is “an essential language that hundreds of millions speak,” Avalos said. “Letting the opportunity pass by is wrong.”

Changing the perception around speaking Spanish is part of UNAM San Antonio’s mission, Avalos said. Being bilingual is a “superpower” and needs to be encouraged for children, he said.

In the San Antonio Independent School District, the third-largest district in the city, the waiting lists to get into its 54 dual language programs show that plenty of parents want that “superpower” for their kids. 

The district has seen increasing demand for those programs, which teach students core subjects like math and reading in both English and Spanish. Gala Friese, director of bilingual compliance for the district, said the demand has come from both English-speaking families and emergent bilingual students — those who come into the program speaking a language other than English at home. The district also offers English as a second language programs, which focus only on teaching English. 

San Antonio ISD isn’t seeing any declines in its Spanish-speaking population; in fact, that number has climbed recently, Friese said. Since the 2016-17 school year, the district has had about 10,000 emergent bilingual students each school year. More than 90% of those students are from Spanish-speaking families, she said. This year, the number climbed to just over 11,000, even as the district is planning to close 15 campuses due to overall enrollment declines. 

The number of Spanish-speaking students hasn’t grown evenly around the district, which can complicate enrollment in dual language programs. The model requires an even mix of English speakers and English learners, so they can learn English and Spanish from each other, without one overwhelming the other. At some campuses, the waiting lists for English-only students wanting to enter a dual language program are much longer than those for English learners, such as Rodriguez Montessori Elementary. The district can’t expand that program without losing the balance of students, unless it can enroll more emerging bilingual students there, which would add more spots for English-speaking students.  

But in other parts of the district, there have been significant increases in Spanish-speaking families seeking dual language programs, Friese said. The biggest increases have come at the secondary level, in middle and high school, she said, though this year there were also big surges in preschool, kindergarten and fourth grade.

“It’s just knowing that it’s the future, being able to communicate with people of different cultures, and really those cognitive benefits of being able to switch between both languages and build the communication skills,” Friese said. 

‘An eternal fight’

 Sáenz said he sees “a ray of hope” in the individual efforts to learn Spanish, like the college students signing up for classes. But he said he expects the decline to continue without more expansive resources and opportunities for learning.

Altering the trajectory requires challenging the ingrained assumption that one language should dominate over another, Chappell said.

“We can still see these problematic ideologies playing out on a broader scale that don’t value Spanish to the same level that we’re valuing English, and we don’t value Spanish equally across all groups of Spanish speakers,” she said. Native Spanish speakers should be celebrated for their bilingualism the same way English-speakers who opt to learn Spanish are, she said.  

Nobody thinks Spanish is in danger of disappearing, Chappell said, but having many cases of people losing the language early in life and later attempting to rediscover it points to something wrong in the educational system.

“If these numbers continue to shift in that direction and if we continue to have an influx of English speakers who do not speak Spanish coming into San Antonio, that does pose an additional threat to the vitality of Spanish,” she said.

For parents like Reyes-Barriéntez, raising bilingual children continues to be an important  mission — even if it’s not always an easy one. 

Her daughter attends weekly Spanish classes, and she’s hoping to enroll her son in a dual language program when he starts kindergarten. But they aren’t surrounded by the language in their community the way she was, and learning it doesn’t feel as vital to them, she said.

Her daughter sometimes asks why she has to learn Spanish, “and that’s a really complicated question to answer,” Reyes-Barriéntez said. “You don’t want your children to have to be asking that question. You want your child to be in a community where it’s valued and prominent and respected.” 

Reyes-Barriéntez said she’s proud of the progress her children have made, and of herself for putting in the work to get them there. 

“On the one hand, yes, I’m disappointed that they’re not completely fluent, but I’m so proud that this is a gift I’m giving to them,” she said. 

That’s a sentiment shared by her mother, Martinez, who said Latino parents must insist on passing down the language.

“Tenemos que echarle ganas,” Martinez said. “Es una lucha eterna aqui.” 

“We have to keep trying. It’s an eternal fight here.” 

Dec 28, 2023 

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