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OSU Professor Susana Rivera-Mills. Courtesy OSU.
OSU Professor Susana Rivera-Mills. Courtesy OSU.

OSU Research: Oregon Latinos Going Back to Their Roots   
September 10, 2013
By Jacob Lewin

New research from Oregon State University points to a change in some of the half-million Latinos who live in Oregon. Young Latinos are retaining the Spanish language at a much higher rate than previous waves of immigrants, or are learning it for the first time.

Independence is 35-percent Latino so St. Patrick’s church draws a big crowd on Sunday mornings
for the Spanish mass.  It’s a close-knit town where extended families gather on Sundays, perhaps
to go to the Carnicería Mi Casita after church.
 
Many Latinos in this town of nine-thousand, southwest of Salem and famous for its hops, trace
their roots to farmworkers who lived in Texas in the forties, fifties, and sixties, and made the
circuit through Arizona, California, and then Oregon.  Their parents or grandparents decided to settle
here because there was less discrimination than in Texas.  Professor Susana Rivera-Mills at Oregon
State University says that was especially true with language,
 
“Historically what we have seen, particularly in the Southwest, is that older generations experienced
much prejudice, particularly going to school.  We have research and studies that show corporal
punishment was used in elementary schools to deter students from speaking their native Spanish
language.”
 
Rivera-Mills says parents who experienced discrimination intentionally did not teach their kids
Spanish and wanted them to assimilate quickly.  Rivera-Mills has done extensive research in
Independence that shows things have come full circle.  Second, third, fourth, and even fifth generation
Latinos are re-learning Spanish or learning it for the first time.  She says this is something that other
immigrant groups in the U.S. have generally not done—or at least not as much—but it makes sense,
 
“What we’re seeing is a demographic explosion.  As communities grow and as more Hispanics begin to
become active participants in that community, these younger generations are realizing that there is an
identity piece that they never fully understood, that they’re missing and that they long to connect to
again.”
 
Rivera-Mills says historically Spanish has been seen in the U.S. as the language of the laborer, but now
employers look at it differently and so do young Latinos,
 
“These folks are realizing that it can get them better jobs and is actually a marketable skill.”
 
Osvaldo Avila grew up in Independence and he recalls his mother and father speaking Spanish when
he was a young child:
 
“We lost the language because they would be going to work long hours, farm work, cannery work, so
they weren’t here.  I do remember her teaching us math skills and reading skills in Spanish before we
were going to kindergarten, but once they were gone and they weren’t there really to talk to us
in Spanish, we were talking too much English and it was just very easy to lose the language.”
 
At age 21 he suddenly felt out of touch with his culture.  Many colleges and universities in Oregon
are offering what are called heritage classes—Spanish language classes especially geared for
Latinos.  Osvaldo started taking courses, and it was through language that he got in touch with his
culture, speaking to aunts and uncles whom he couldn’t speak to before.  He says language is a
gateway.  His values changed. He became more family-oriented and less materialistic than he had
been as a teenager,
 
“I always wanted things.  I’d always be watching things like MTV.  And now that I got back in touch
with my culture, that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.  I became a different person, 100-percent.
It’s why I do the things I do and why I’m passionate about education and also passionate about
continuing the Mexican traditions, passing that on to my children.”
 
Avila is now a student advisor at Western Oregon University where he counsels Latino students to
rediscover Spanish, become bilingual and bicultural.  And his mother, Rebecca,
 
“Me siento contenta....”
 
She says she couldn’t be happier and prouder of her son.
 

 

 


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