Fewer Latinos speak Spanish in Sonoma County

Today, 1 in 4 people in Sonoma County are Latino. But fewer of them know how to speak Spanish. It is a sign of how Latino identity is evolving in California.|

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.

But even though immigration from Latin America is no longer driving the growth in the county’s Latino population, new immigrants continue to “infuse” Latino culture into American society, said Laura Larque, a history instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Larque, who was born and raised in Mexico City and came to the United States at the age of 24, said that even second- and third-generation Latinos continue to be infused by Latin American cultures.

“The stream of people, wall or no wall, will continue to come,” she said. “What two countries share a bigger border than Mexico and the United States, where you have on one side a rich, industrialized country and on the other a poor country?”

While it has become easier for young Latinos to openly display pride in their culture, whether that’s speaking Spanish or celebrating traditions, Larque said racism and prejudice continue to plague these youth as they negotiate their two cultures. Academic success in one language should not have to come at the expense of the other, she said.

She pointed out that for decades, local school systems have not prized the language skills that many immigrant and first-generation children already had when they started school. Many of these children started school knowing how to speak Spanish with their parents and English with the outside world.

Pew, citing statistics from the European Commission, notes in 2015 that most European students begin studying their first foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9. In the German-speaking community of Belgium, students learn their first foreign language at 3 and their second foreign language at 13. In the United States, there is no national requirement that students learn a foreign language, although states and local school districts set their own standards. California requires college-bound high school students to complete at least two years of foreign language classes.

“Language is one of the most important cultural elements in society,” Larque said.

She said making the most of an immigrant or first-generation child’s native language is an investment in that child’s education and language development. Those first few years of a Latino child’s native language are essentially discarded, she said.

“The Mexican community would be more advanced, would be enjoying more prosperity and equality if their skills, their language and cultural skills were recognized and respected,” she said.

Daniel Malpica, an assistant professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Sonoma State University, agreed that Latinos can be bicultural and speak one language. But he said assimilation in the United States may ultimately catch up with Latinos who only speak English.

“We don’t want to assimilate but the data tells us the complete opposite,” he said. “We are assimilating because we are losing the language of our parents and grandparents.”

The ability to speak one or two words or phrases is not enough for second- and third-generation Latinos to fully engage with members of the immigrant community, he said. Latino immigrants often see themselves as outsiders in the United States and second- and third-generation Latinos often see themselves as outsiders when they visit their parents’ native countries.

Many Latinos are maintaining many important aspects of their parents’ culture, such as respect for their elders and a strong connection with an indigenous past. But language, he said, cannot be overlooked.

“In order to be fully bicultural, you need to have a command of both languages,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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