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Bilingualism Across Generations: The Unseen Divide

An Ethnographic Field Study

Written and Illustrated by Oliver Gonzalez

In the 1970s, Luis Padilla was separated from his parents as they fought for 4 years to immigrate their family to the

United States. They “illegally, faced deportation [while] working multiple jobs” (Luis) to make it possible. Finally at the age of 7 Padilla was able to rejoin his parents in the United States as a citizen. Despite having to adjust to a new home and learn a new language Luis Padilla was happy to be back with his family. Today Dr. Luis Padilla, M.D. works as “the associate administrator for health workforce at the Health Resources and Services Administration [and] director of the National Health Service Corps” (Luis). The Padilla family was one of many families to immigrate to the United States within the past few decades. And with these families came a new culture, a new lifestyle, and a new language. It’s not an overstatement to say Latinx culture has saturated the United States with what is now Latinx-American culture. The 2019 United States Census reported that 67.8 Millon United States citizens spoke another language other than English. Out of the total 67.8 million citizens, 62% of them spoke Spanish, but 75% of those individuals were over the age of 20 (Hernandez). Only one-fourth of the U.S. Spanish-speaking population was under 20 years of age according to the 2019 census. This is an astounding number when considering the Hispanic/Latinx population in the United States as of July 2021 was recorded to be 62.2 million people (Bureau). Language is a key to understanding culture and history, but how can younger generations connect to their past if they are unable to communicate properly with older generations? It’s important to understand how this phenomenon may affect younger generations of Latinx-American people. Observing the family offers insight into if young non-bilingual Latinx-American people develop a sense of identity within their family’s culture despite a language barrier. 


This ethnographic study focuses on the interactions between generations of Latinx-American people within a

local family through participant observation and direct interviews. For a consistent and concise recounting of events and people, a kinship chart has been created in collaboration with a member of this family–who of which is labeled the Ego. See Figure 1 for the kinship chart. The focus of the observational study will be on the patrilineal descent group due to the matrilineal descent group being of Russian descent. The participant observation is separated into two separate phases, during two separate periods. Both phases of participant observation take place during family gatherings in which most–if not all–family members are present. Two interviews were conducted during the third visit of the family, one participant being part of Ego’s generation and the other being part of the generation prior. All participants directly involved in the interview process have given informed consent to publish their answers but not to share their identities. The key informant–Ego–has given informed consent to include their findings and observations in this study. From this point forward these three informants will be referenced by the color of their generation on the kinship chart, Red, Blue, and Ego. 


Figure 1. Family Kinship Chart

Participant Observation, Phase 1, began outside of Ego’s grandparent’s home in a large neighborhood in the

surrounding area of a local high school. Each home was situated neatly next to one other, with an occasional abandoned home every few blocks. A park just down the road added children laughing to the background hum of a nearby busy street. The home itself was old, pre-existing the current owners who were nearing their 80s. With a small backyard and an even smaller front yard, it was surprising that once the whole family arrived everyone fit. The family was gathering for the grandfather’s birthday. Each group arrived in a separate vehicle filling the street almost to the end of the block going both directions. As the family began to mingle a pattern became evident. The family as a whole is made up of smaller family units, with little co-mingling between generations. Blue took on a leadership role almost immediately, cooking food, setting up places to eat as well as music, and greeting people as they arrived. There was a mix of Spanish and English between Blue and his relatives, although he would switch often to communicate with younger relatives like Red and Ego. Very few of Blue’s siblings offered the same translation to Red, Ego, or any of the younger kids. It became clear that the younger kids needed to greet every relative, although a few of the older kids required encouragement. Blue, eventually guided Ego to wish the Grandfather a happy birthday, speaking to him in Spanish to gain his attention. The conversation only lasted a few seconds due to Ego’s inability to continue the conversation in Spanish. In that moment the divide between generations could not have been more clear. 

Participant Observation, Phase 2, was a night of grief and love for the family. The Grandmother passed away shortly before this family event, and after the funeral, the family came together to celebrate the life she lived. The celebration of life took place once again in the backyard of a small house right off a busy road. The air was so warm and humid the sounds of traffic and mariachi music stuck to it. A much different atmosphere than the birthday party prior. Family members arrived in waves, sticking to smaller family units just as before. Fresh Molé, rice, beans, beef, pico de gallo, and much more were organized in a buffet-style line. The food and the family games and raffles that kept everyone busy were organized by Blue and his cousin. Upon further observation of the blue generation's interactions with other family members, an unperceived power dynamic became evident. Blue’s generation is the only group that can fully communicate across both young and old generations. This ability gives family members–like Blue–a rank of unspoken authority to systematize the family as a whole. This dynamic is not rare but the factor of multiple languages makes Ego’s family dynamic unique. Members of Blue’s generation would interact often to plan and make decisions on family matters. Within both phases of participant observation, members of the family would frequently turn to the blue generation for group and individual guidance.  

Blue himself assumes the role of guidance within his family, as he explained to me in an interview conducted on

his front porch. The interviewee’s name has been changed for the sake of his anonymity, and his alias has been chosen from the color of the generation he is a part of on the family kinship chart. Blue was chosen as an interview participant because of his observed role during both phases of participant observation. We have been acquainted before this interview and had spoken outside of this ethnographic study. His demeanor was stern yet inviting, and he seemed open to answering some questions about his family dynamic. I suspected Blue would only give very brief answers to the questions in the interview, due to his naturally quiet presence. I learned quickly this was an incorrect assumption based on the lengths he talked about his family. The interview was typical back and forth–question then answer–lasting no longer than 20 minutes.  Blue describes himself as a caretaker within his family, the first point of contact in any major event or just for advice. His connection with other members of his family is good, but he does admit that they have their rough moments. Blue directly related the term kin to his family. He stated that kin is any individual that will look after you in return for being looked after. Blue often hosts family dinners at his home and associated these family gatherings with positive energy. As established before Blue is fluent in both English and Spanish, furthermore he confirms that Spanish and English are the only languages the family would be fluent in. I asked my final question: Could you describe one of the most challenging communication experiences within your family and explain how you dealt with it? We sat in a few moments of silence as he gathered the story he recounted for me. Blue’s parents immigrated to the United States before he was born and knew very little English. Since he was born in the U.S. he attended an English-speaking school so he learned both languages simultaneously. Blue acknowledged the real challenge was attempting to bring these two separate worlds together.           


A similar struggle to Red, who expressed frustration to me in a quiet park to the west of town. The interviewee’s

name has been changed for the sake of their anonymity, and their alias has been chosen from the color of the generation they are a part of on the family kinship chart. Red was chosen as an interview participant because of their reserved nature during both phases of participant observation. We have been acquainted before this interview and had spoken outside of this ethnographic study. From my experience with Red, they are very bubbly and social, it only took asking them for an interview for them to agree to it. Due to this, I expected Red to have an upbeat attitude during our interview, so it was surprising to see them get quiet towards the end. As a non-binary individual, Red describes themself as a sibling, cousin, and an aunt or uncle figure. Their connection with their family is neutral as they are not around very often. Red states that any individual can be kin regardless of genealogical connection, just as long as they love each other. And despite not seeing them often, Red considers their family to be kin. Major holidays or events are when Red visits and talks with family. They can speak a small amount of Spanish but they are not fluent. They confirm Spanish and English are the only languages the family would be fluent in. Communication within the family, specifically between generations, was difficult. 

Many families just like the Padilla family and Blue’s family immigrate to the United States every year. Bringing with

them new cultures, experiences, and languages. But as generations move forward the language of the original descendants is not carried on. Language is a key to communicating properly with the world. When that language is lost, communication, culture, and tradition are lost with it creating an unseen divide.

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