MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Here in the U.S., nearly half of Latinos speak Spanish at home. But for Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, that number is only 20 percent. This, according to a new poll done by NPR, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji looked into those numbers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: New York City is home to the largest Puerto Rican population in the U.S. So here we are at Sofritos, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Manhattan, about to dig into some fried green plantains and roast pork with Javier Fossas and kick off this conversation about Spanish in English.
JAVIER FOSSAS: Yes. I mean, I started learning English since I was like 3 or 4 years old. In preschool, we, you know, we were taught English. Also on my school, we had English as well. And in my house, like, we watch English television.
MERAJI: Fossas grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But now, he works in private equity in Manhattan. And like he said, English is everywhere back home. Both English and Spanish are the official languages in Puerto Rico because it's a U.S. territory. But Spanish still reigns supreme on the island and that's something Fossas is proud of.
FOSSAS: Spanish is a great language, a beautiful language and something that should be taught. Do you speak Spanish?
MERAJI: Ah, there it is, the dreaded question that so many Puerto Ricans raised on the mainland hate to answer - do you speak Spanish? I'll let Marissa Irizarry take that one.
MARISSA IRIZZARY: OK, so I don't speak Spanish, but I understand it fully.
MERAJI: I met Irizarry in a Puerto Rican music and folklore class at Brooklyn College, a long train ride away from that restaurant in Manhattan. She sat in the front row raising her hand often with the right answer to questions about Puerto Rican music and history. Irizarry grew up in Brooklyn.
IRIZZARY: I was raised in a home with a father who was back and forth between Puerto Rico and New York City. So he was able to find ways to hold on to the culture and I kind of did, too.
MERAJI: With one big exception, Spanish.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DESPEDIDA")
ANTONIO NADAL: (Singing in foreign language)
MERAJI: Marissa's professor, Antonio Nadal, serenades her class in Spanish with an old Puerto Rican bolero called "La Despedida."
NADAL: "La Despedida," translation?
MERAJI: The farewell. Puerto Ricans en masse said farewell to the island in the '50s, escaping poverty. Nadal, who teaches bilingual studies at Brooklyn College, says that's also why so many Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. speak English at home.
NADAL: We've been here a long time. The length of residence does count.
MERAJI: And he says the New York public schools were totally unprepared for the wave of Puerto Rican youth like him who came in the late '40s and '50s. Kids were just dumped in remedial classes.
NADAL: In the dingiest places of the building, right? And the kids picked up that they were inferior to the regular English-speaking kids.
MERAJI: And that feeling of inferiority was a slap in the face to Puerto Ricans, says Nadal, because Puerto Ricans are American.
NADAL: Wait a minute. We're citizens of the United States. But we're second-class citizens.
MERAJI: So to be treated like any other American, he theorizes, Puerto Ricans focused on English at the expense of Spanish. 27-year-old Gisely Colon Lopez is another one of Nadal's students. Her family came to the Bronx from Puerto Rico when she was around four, and that's when they stopped speaking Spanish at home.
GISELY COLON LOPEZ: Mainly because my mother was trying to learn English on her own, so I couldn't - I remember, you know, she just wanted to hear English. Just speak to me in English so I can learn it while you're learning it. The mentality is if you speak English, oh, you're, you know, better.
MERAJI: But times have changed. As the Latino population continues to grow here in the U.S., being bilingual is now seen as a career asset, almost a must. And Nuyoricans like Colon Lopez and Irizarry are struggling to catch up. Gisely Colon Lopez told her parents, that's it, my turn. Spanish only from now on.
LOPEZ: The other night, we were driving in the car with my dad. And I was asking them - talking to them in Spanish and let them know, you know, please correct me as often as possible. And it was like every other sentence they were correcting things for me.
IRIZZARY: I'm 20 years into it and I have a low self-esteem about it that I'm ever going to learn it.
MERAJI: Marissa Irizarry is disappointed her parents didn't enforce Spanish when she was young and could soak it up. She says her mom reminds her it's never too late to learn.
IRIZZARY: And then she'll joke and go, let's start now. I'm only going to talk to you in Spanish, and then start. And I'm like, too late.
MERAJI: It's probably not too late for Irizarry. And now, there's another record wave of Puerto Ricans coming to the U.S. looking for work. But this time, they're coming to a mainland more aware of the economic and political power of the growing Latino demographic. Hey, maybe their children will no longer dread answering that question: do you speak Spanish? Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.