Words to Live By

Language and culture meet identity

A market in Independence offers goods from south of the border. (Photo: Frank Miller)

Even on a drizzly Sunday morning in November, Carniceria Mi Casita is hopping. The bustle of business begins on the sidewalk in front of the market, where a man brandishing a long fork tends a cast-iron barbeque the size of a battleship. As he flips the mounds of chicken and pork sizzling on the grate, a truck rumbles up to the curb. A delivery guy jumps out and starts unloading trays piled with pan dulce (Mexican pastries). Inside, a clerk banters in Spanish with customers as they browse the imported merchandise jamming the shelves, ceiling to floor — dried chilies in giant plastic bags, prepaid phone cards from Mexico Cellular and ATM Mexico, Barbie and SpongeBob piñatas, pickled cactus, hoja tamal (corn husks) by the dozens.

To the first-time visitor, it feels like slipping through a portal that drops you south of the border. Yet this blast of Mexicana thrives right on Main Street in Independence, an historic town southwest of Salem. For Susana Rivera-Mills, Carniceria Mi Casita is more than just one of the many Latino-owned businesses in Independence, which is 35 percent Hispanic. For the Oregon State researcher, the market is also a “point of contact,” a place where she and her students have connected with local Latinas and Latinos for a long-term linguistic study.

Over the past three years, her team has interviewed 125 residents at the market and at four other places — a Mexican restaurant, a housing complex for farm workers, a dress shop catering to Latinas and the Heritage Museum — about their personal and family histories as immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Now she begins the task of analyzing data, looking at patterns of language retention across generations to better understand how social networks shape those patterns.

“My research is about Spanish in the United States, but even more than that, it’s about understanding how communities of Spanish-speaking people navigate the complex issues surrounding loss of language,” says Rivera-Mills. “How does language affect their sense of belonging, their definition of community, their access to education?”

Language as Identity

Borrowing terminology from the environmental sciences, Rivera-Mills characterizes her work as the study of “linguistic landscapes” or the “ecology of languages.” She teases apart variables — age of arrival in the United States, educational attainment, indigenous roots, family cohesion and multiple language domains (school, church, bank, marketplace) — that determine whether Latinos retain their language and their ancestral identity as they create new lives in America.

The market called Carniceria Mi Casita stocks traditional products from south of the border, such as the pan dulce that Susana Rivera-Mills buys on her way to interview a local family. (Photo: Frank Miller)

“Susana’s research on language maintenance and shift during contact with the dominant culture is well regarded in the field,” notes Tobin Hansen, an OSU Spanish instructor who has participated in the Independence project.

It’s too soon to draw firm conclusions; it will take another year to crunch all the numbers. But the early findings from Independence have surprised Rivera-Mills, who has been doing sociolinguistic research for 15 years. They reveal a community that is holding onto Spanish for five and six generations, much longer than other Latinos she has studied in New Mexico, California, Arizona and elsewhere in Oregon. Spanish typically disappears by the third generation after arrival in the United States, as has been the pattern among European immigrants.

Recipe for Menudo

She attributes this robust language retention in part to Independence’s deeply rooted Latino heritage — passed down in the extended family, los padres to sus hijos, los abuelos to sus nietos — by hard-working, close-knit, tradition-loving families like the Oliveros.

On her way to interview the Oliveros, one of the oldest Latino families in Independence, Rivera-Mills swings by Carniceria Mi Casita to pick up some pan dulce as a thank-you offering. This morning, the meat counter displays hand-printed signs advertising panal (honeycomb) at $2.69 a pound and librillo (beef stomach) at $3.59 a pound — ingredients for making a traditional soup called menudo. And menudo is exactly what the family is serving to the stream of relatives that begins to arrive soon after church lets out. Amid the hubbub — a TV flickering, smart phones ringing, people coming and going — Rivera-Mills interviews family patriarch Felix Inocencio Oliveros, who, as a teenager, came to Independence from Texas with his family to help harvest 3,000 acres of asparagus. The year was 1961. For three years, they lived in a camp for agricultural workers.

Longtime Independence resident Felix Inocencio Oliveros shares his life story with Susana Rivera-Mills. (Photo: Frank Miller)

“The conditions were not the greatest,” he recalls, sitting at the dining-room table of his daughter Cristina. “But you have to deal with what you’ve got. You make the best of it.” Besides, there was a silver lining: He was making $1 an hour in Oregon, compared to the 25 cents he got in Texas, where his dad had been a farm worker since World War II.

Family stories like these, told in Spanish over steaming bowls of chili-red menudo, are the community’s cultural DNA encoded in a shared language. Rivera-Mills’ job is to translate human experience into scholarship and, once all the standard deviations have been run and the statistics compiled, deeper understanding.

“The research I do is engaged research,” Rivera-Mills says. “It’s not a one-way street. It’s a partnership between academia and the community to create shared knowledge. You give the community your ear and listen, listen, listen.”

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