Ask any Latino in Sonoma County whether it’s important for future generations of Latinos to speak Spanish and most will say yes.
But even as the county’s Latino population continues to grow — from 1 in 5 Sonoma County residents to 1 in 4 in the past decade — fewer are able to speak the language that, in many ways, defines their culture.
This is no contradiction, but rather an example of the complexity of Latino biculturalism. Latino identity is evolving with the demographic shifts taking place in California’s relatively new majority-minority, one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups.
“What it means to be Hispanic is something unique,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.
“While many (Latinos) say it’s important for future generations in the United States to speak Spanish, many say that speaking Spanish is not required to be considered Hispanic in the U.S.,” Lopez said.
Between 2005 and 2015, the share of Sonoma County Latinos who are proficient in English jumped from 63 percent to 80 percent, while the share of Latinos who speak mostly Spanish fell from 37 percent to 20 percent.
A decline in the number of undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County is one likely contributor to this trend. Between the turn of the century and 2015, the number of undocumented immigrants had dropped by 10 percent, or 3,500 people, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
In 2007, there was a peak of 30,482 Latinos in the county who spoke mostly Spanish. By 2015, that number had dropped to 23,913. By contrast, the number of local Latinos who were proficient in English rose from a low of 45,250 in 2005 to 96,312 in 2015.
In his acclaimed and controversial 1982 autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez describes a childhood and educational journey that resulted in alienation from his parents’ culture and their language — the cost of academic success in America. The book has often been criticized by Chicanos and Mexican-Americans who prize their parents’ heritage and ancestral roots.
But in many ways California and the rest of the country today are much different than what Rodriguez experienced growing up as a child in Sacramento in the early 1950s.
“The Hispanic population since that book was written has more than doubled,” Lopez said, adding that Latinos are also the youngest major racial or ethnic group in the United States.
“Today’s young Latinos also express pride in their Hispanic background in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case in the past,” he said.
While millennial Latinos are more often than not the children of immigrant parents and more likely to be bilingual, those under 18 make up the largest share of the nation’s Latino population — about one-third — and are less likely to speak Spanish, Lopez said. At the same time, immigration from Latin America has slowed dramatically over the past decade.
Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, more Mexicans have left the United States than have entered, with family reunification in Mexico being the top reason, according to a 2015 Pew study that estimated a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans between 2009 and 2014. About 1 million left while only about 870,000 Mexican nationals came.