Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Immigrant Gangs and Language Dividers

by Desiree Andersen

            Language as a dividing mechanism has existed for ages. Take the Tower of Babel bible story for example. To summarize, the entire world had one language. Then, a group of people began to settle a piece of land a started building a tower. God noticed and said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” He then ‘confused’ their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth. Language is what brought people together in this story and it is what separated them in the end. Clearly, language as a divider is not a new concept at all, yet it has remained one of the most fascinating things to study within linguistics. Perhaps this is because divisions associated with language have manifested in so many different places and ways.
            Norma Mendoza-Denton’s chapter “Hemispheric Localism: Language, racialized nationalism, and the politicization of youth” really struck me. At first, it was the division between gangs along language lines i.e. Spanish and English that was most shocking to me. Maybe, it is because I hadn’t ever heard of something like this before. By the end of the chapter, however, I was left wanting to know more about the origination of these gangs. Though I believe it is much more complicated than just language, there is no doubt that language is an integral part of why these kids felt the need to be part of something that made them feel like they belonged.
            Recently, I went to South Africa, where there are 11 different official languages and several other unofficial languages. On any given day, walking down a busy street you can hear people speaking Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English or some mix of all of them. During the apartheid regime, language was one of the tools of oppression.
            English and Afrikaans were pinned against indigenous African languages such as Zulu and Xhosa. An education act was passed that required students, regardless of their native language, to be taught in Afrikaans. This meant learning the language of their oppressors. This also meant that Afrikaners were controlling what people were being educated about. It created a divide by creating an education gap between native Afrikaans speakers and those with other native tongues that were forced to learn the language in a matter of two years. Essentially, language was part of what separated white from black.
            Similar instances of language being used as a divider have been taking place here in the United States. In week 3, we had a couple of articles that looked at language policy in education here in the U.S. Ofelia Garcia and Rosario Torres-Guevara reference California’s policy on English as a second language education. In 1998, the state passed a proposition that prohibited the use of Spanish in teaching U.S. Latinos and mandated an English immersion program that would take no longer than one year. This meant that if Spanish speaking student didn’t learn English in the matter of a year, they would be failed by the system.
            Just as in South Africa, students began to be taught all subjects in their second language after only a year of learning it. If we take a moment to imagine what that must be like, it is devastating. Failed by the education system, it is no wonder that the Latino youth in places like California have turned to one another for a place to fit in.

The video below attempts to explain how immigrant gangs begin:

One of the men says something so interesting, “They couldn’t join any sports clubs, because they couldn’t communicate and understand… so a lot of them would get involved with these gangs.” Simply put, there are not enough resources for people who are learning English as a second language. It is easy to feel isolated if you cannot communicate with your peers in school. So, immigrants who shared a language came together and created gangs in various places.
            Perhaps what happened in the case of the Sureños and Norteños of Mendoza-Denton’s chapter, is that the gangs evolved over time. Recall, the Sureños are typically Mexican and speak Spanish while the Norteños are typically Chicanos and don’t speak Spanish. The Norteños had probably immigrated before the Sureños and learned English over time. By asserting their English proficiency, they excluded new immigrants. Thus, the newly arrived immigrants formed the Sureños.
            By using English as their primary form of communication, Norteños are becoming more exclusive. It is as if they are using the same structure that made them feel excluded in the first place. Language can be used to assert power, especially if there are underlying ideologies that one language is better than another. This seems to be the case with English in America. The education system’s focus on getting immigrants to be immersed in English, instead of in bilingual programs, is an example of how English is thought of as a superior language.

The clip below shows the Norteños from Oakland, California. They are from the same area that Mendoza-Denton did her case study on. Pay particular attention at 1:55.

Mendoza-Denton writes, “their newly revealed phonology sounded distinctively like African-American English, disclosing the source of their skills” (140). The Norteños from this clip, just like the Norteños Mendoza-Denton studied, appear to be employing the same type of English mentioned in her chapter. One of the boys uses the word “dog,” as if to say “dude” or something similar. Dog is a slang word taken from African American Vernacular English. They also use the n-word with an ‘a’ ending.

Compare this to the Sureños’ parent gang, Mara Salvatrucha:

This video explains MS’s connection with Latin America. Sureños were frequently deported and the gang grew across border lines. Their tie to the Spanish language is instrumental in the gang. In order for MS to function between Latin America and the U.S., members have to be fluent Spanish speakers. So, unlike the Norteños who after time adopted the English language, MS clings to Spanish for functionality. Part of MS’s power is in keeping the language alive amongst its members, whereas the Norteños adopted English, assimilated and began excluding other immigrants.
            Looking back at the Tower of Babel story, when God speaks and says, nothing would be impossible for them if they spoke the same language. For the Norteños this has proven true. Their families have climbed the American class ranks by learning English, the unofficial language of the U.S. The Sureños have held onto their linguistic roots as a way of keeping their international gang together.
            One of Mendoza-Denton’s subjects explains that Norteños typically belong to higher classes; they “have more money than we do, better cars, and better jobs, because of the English.” He goes on to tell of how Sureños and their parents hold jobs that include working in the fields or in people’s backyards. He explains that they have these types of jobs because of a lack of education. This lack of education is likely tied to a language barrier. Bonnie Urciuoli explains, “Hegemonically, Spanish itself is regarded as a barrier to class mobility because it displaces English” (26). If this is the case, Sureños and Norteños are divided amongst more lines than just language, but are divided by class as well.

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