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Student Finds Her Roots in the Heritage Spanish Class

TMCC student Crystal Horton who is completing her associate of fine arts degree in May 2022.
Rebecca A. Eckland

Crystal Sugartown Collazo Esparza-Northon is pursuing a lifelong dream: this semester, she’s completing her associate degree in fine arts at TMCC in order to gain admission at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City so she can pursue a career in fashion design. She began her journey in higher education at TMCC in 2006, but as a first-generation college student who is also a first-generation American citizen, she has faced considerable barriers.

“I grew up going to Title I schools with a single mom who was also a Mexican immigrant. She wasn’t home much because she had to work two jobs,” Esparza-Northon explained. “I struggled through school, and learning was hard, so when I came to TMCC the first time, I was already behind.”  Like many first-generation Latinx students, Esparza-Northon has grown up in a bilingual and bi-cultural environment in which informal Spanish was spoken at home, and English was spoken everywhere else: at school and in public places.

Even though Spanish is technically Esparza-Northon’s native language, she is taking a Spanish Class for Heritage Speakers at TMCC this semester for two important reasons, the second of which might be surprising: to fulfill the foreign language requirements of her degree and to learn how to speak formal Spanish. “Even though Spanish was my first language, I learned English [in school] and my Spanish became a kind of ‘broken’ Spanish. So many of the words I speak are a mix of Spanish and English words,” she said. The class, therefore, is helping her to recover and understand formal Spanish: a language that she will certainly use in professional environments, but also the language of her own cultural heritage and of her home.

Yet, Esparza-Northon didn’t begin her journey toward her dream career out of the blue. In 2020, a medical emergency in her family would return Esparza-Northon not only to the desire to learn about her cultural and linguistic heritage, but to her lifelong love of fashion. “I didn’t think that [becoming a fashion designer] was something that was attainable to me because I grew up with a single immigrant mom who was Mexican, and I just didn’t think there was any way that I was going to be able to go to a dream school,” she explained. “In 2020, my mom had a brain tumor removed and just going through that with her, seeing how short life is and all the struggles she’s made to get here—that made me realize that if other people can pursue their dreams, I can, too. So, I just set my mind to it.” 

What is a “Heritage Speaker?”  

Esparza-Northon offers a textbook definition of what it means to be a heritage speaker: someone who grew up speaking a language at home, but who never formally studied it in an academic setting. This creates a unique situation in which the “home” language (Spanish) and the public one (English) mingle to create a slang, commonly known as “Spanglish.” 

Sometimes heritage speakers are also called “receptive bilingual” speakers—or a person who can understand more of a heritage language than they can speak it. TMCC Instructor Gabriel Chávez said that heritage speakers face unique challenges that these classes seek to address through their multi-faceted approach that explores grammar, literature, culture and conversation in a safe space. “Sometimes students fixate on one thing, like where they need to place their accents,” he said, explaining that the class gives students increased proficiency in all aspects of the language, including conversation, writing and communication utilizing formal, standard Spanish. 

This is key: for many Latinx college-age students who come from a wide array of cultural and ethnically diverse backgrounds, “Spanglish” has provided a kind of lingua franca, enabling different dialects of Spanish to speak a common language. And yet, this kind of “Spanglish” isn’t just blending English and Spanish words together: it is a fusion of syntactic structures and idiomatic expressions that only make sense to a heritage speaker who knows more Spanish than a second language learner but who has grown up, at least in their public lives, surrounded by English. 

“They know the structures and the words, but having been surrounded by English for so long, it impacts how they use their own language,” Chávez explained. “This class teaches them the formal structures of Spanish that they would need in professional environments.”  

Chávez’s students, whose cultural heritage finds its roots in various countries such as: El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba or Peru to name a few examples, all also have different vocabulary sets, but share a reliance on English and “Spanglish” to get their point across. And yet, as the semester unfolds, these students also start to share something more profound: knowledge of their mother tongue, and a deeper understanding—and appreciation—of their cultural identities. 

Culture, Identity and Belonging

Before you start thinking it’s all about grammar, the truth about the Spanish for Heritage Speakers class is that it covers more than just verb conjugation, infinitives and discussions around the subjunctive tense. Chávez infuses the class with lessons on history, geography, culture, often bringing personal narratives from other Latinx public figures and professionals for students to read and discuss. “It’s been really nice to learn the history of my people and where we came from, and how long we have been here,” said Esparza-Northon. “I didn’t learn any of that when I was in public school.” 

In an effort to make these classes as relatable as possible, Chávez begins by teaching students about the deep cultural heritage that Latinx people have brought to our community and its immediate environs. This includes lessons on how the mines that populated the Comstock Lode around Virginia City were originally conceived and constructed by Mexican miners. “I didn’t know that Spanish was the first language ever spoken in the U.S. besides the Native American languages because the Spaniards were the first Europeans to arrive on the continent,” said Esparza-Northon. “It’s really kind of crazy to be 33 years old and finding out about your history for the first time. But I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t taken Chávez’s classes.” 

However, much of this kind of personal and cultural discovery is the point of the class. “We talk a lot about identity, and the role of Latinx people. This helps to create connection among the students,” Chávez said. “It’s about re-discovering a sense of self and cultural identity. The class is designed to address the specific needs of these kinds of students.”

For many students like Esparza-Northon, the disconnect between identity, language and culture is very real, and is a disconnection that has been happening for generations. “Language abandonment is also about generational trauma,” writes Huffington Post author Monica Torres.  “People [have grown up] with societal pressure to assimilate in the U.S. and abandon Spanish, or to make it a private language only spoken [at home] and passed these ideas down to the next generation.” 

Esparza-Northon experienced this first hand; when she was in high school and first came to TMCC in 2006, she got married, and dropped her birth last names. “I went through this period of not wanting to be Mexican anymore,” she said. “I believed I had to ‘Americanize’ myself, to lose my heritage and my roots.”

Reading the experiences of other Latinx immigrants like journalist and author Jorge Ramos or Supreme Court Justice Sonia Maria Sotomayor, to name two examples, helps students to realize that these are common feelings when faced with the challenges and pressures of immigrating and assimilating to a dominant culture. 

After reading these narratives, Esparza-Northon’s ideas about what it means to have a Mexican heritage and to be a part of Latinx culture have changed. In addition to going through the legal process to reclaim and use her birth last name, she’s started embracing her Mexican heritage.  

“It is so important for students to take these kinds of classes and to learn more about Latinx culture because you can be proud of where you came from. It helped me to be more of an advocate for our people. And learning about this history has been very, very helpful. It reminds me to just keep going, and not to feel like my dream is out of reach.” 

The class has also created a community out of the shared experiences of what it is like to be a heritage speaker and the child of parents who are also immigrants. “You have to grow up really fast,” Esparza-Northon explained. “It’s really hard as a first-generation child to parents who are non-English speakers, because you have to translate everything when they go to appointments, or you need to fill out all their paperwork.  I translated everything for my mom since I was seven or eight years old. I think that starts to weigh on first-generation kids, and we start to feel resentful… so in class, we can talk about it and realize we’re all going through this in different ways, but we are in it together.”

Bringing Language Lessons Home

The number of Heritage speaker programs in the United States is on the rise. According to language development researcher Sara Beaudrie between 2002-2012, the number of Spanish Heritage programs in postsecondary institutions grew by 22%.  And it makes sense: it’s a class that, in addition to promoting the development of listening, reading and writing skills, also connects students to their identities: past, present and future. By developing cultural competence in the heritage community, students can also gain a critical awareness of issues that Spanish speakers face in the United States while they gain self-confidence in using their native language. 

While one might expect that a Spanish Class for Heritage Speakers class would be easy for these students (it’s not), it is nonetheless valuable in providing students like Esparza-Northon with vital communication skills in their native language.  It also has yet another unintended consequence: many speakers find not only improved attitudes about their cultural heritage but improved relationships with family members and friends. 

Esparza-Northon remembers a moment last semester when she had to drive her mom to a medical appointment that was at the same time as Chávez’s class. She tuned into the lecture using her phone connected by bluetooth to the audio system in her car. Chávez was reviewing a grammar lesson from the previous class.  As they both listened to the lesson, Esparza-Northon remembered her mom’s words from when she told her she was enrolling in a Spanish for Heritage Speakers class: how is this class going to be hard for you? 

The experience validated Esparza-Northon’s experience that the class has certainly presented its challenges, while opening up a new dialogue between mother and daughter. These days, Esparza-Northon is giving her mother lessons on the formal Spanish she’s learning in class, as well as the lessons on Latinx culture.  The live sessions on Zoom have been especially helpful, and Esparza-Northon hopes in the future that the class can be offered in an in-person format.

“My Spanish has gotten better. I could feel it flowing easier when I would call my mom and have a conversation with her,” she said. “I can communicate easier, and I have a process now, that if I don't know how to say something, I can step back and think about it, and it comes out easily.”

Supporting First-Generation Latinx Students

Since 2017, TMCC has been a Hispanic Serving Institution. In the Fall 2021 semester, 34% of students identified themselves as Hispanic, and early numbers of applicants for Fall 2022 show an increase in applications from Hispanic students, outpacing all other ethnicities (as of April 2022). Knowing what particular challenges Hispanic students face—and supporting their success—is integral to the institution’s mission.
Classes like Chávez’s help these students to not only appreciate their cultural heritage, but to create a sense of community that is so foundational to supporting their ongoing success. “This class really opens up doors for a bigger community,” said Esparza-Northon, who knows firsthand what it can feel like to face barriers and not to know how to overcome them. “It would be really good for Latinx students to take this class, because [it could help them to realize] we come from backgrounds that make it difficult to finish school and graduate. It’s not because you’re dumb or because you are poor. It’s just your background… and it makes it harder to get through. But if you have support and people around to cheer you on, you can learn how to succeed.” 

In addition to the community and support of Chávez’s class, Esparza-Northon cites the TRIO program as a major resource for first-generation students–one, she said, that could have made the difference for her when she first became a college student. 

Maria Sandra Martinez, Director of TMCC’s TRIO Support Services Program, said that the program’s main purpose is to support students like Esparza-Northon. “The goal of TRIO SSS here at TMCC is to increase the persistence and graduation rates of its participants and to help students transfer from one level of higher education to the next through focused and intrusive services such as tutoring, academic advising, personal & career counseling, and information on the full range of student financial aid programs.” The support, said Esparza-Northon, has made all the difference. 

After all, Esparza-Northon is living her dream. “This class has given me more empowerment in regards to my culture and history… it’s given me the courage to keep going.” 

For more information about the Spanish for Heritage Speakers class, contact TMCC’s Humanities Department at 775-674-7945.