Preaching the Faith en Español

Tanzanian Peter Mushi (left), priest at Saint Cecilia's Church in East Harlem, and Filipina Gena Brillantes (right) a community organizer, have both learned Spanish in efforts to bridge the gap with the Latino communities they serve. (Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

Tanzanian Peter Mushi (left), priest at Saint Cecilia’s Church in East Harlem, and Filipina Gena Brillantes (right) a community organizer, have both learned Spanish in efforts to bridge the gap with the Latino communities they serve. (Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

While many third-generation Latinos lose the language of their parents and grandparents, the number of non-Latino Spanish-speakers keeps growing. Non-Latino communities recognize that being bilingual, even multilingual, is a valuable tool in the labor market.

Learning new languages isn’t something new for Rev. Peter Mushi, who emigrated from Tanzania, Africa, 20 years ago. His first language is Chagga, but later on he became fluent in Swahili and Luganda, and, in New York, English.

A thriving Latino congregation in the South Bronx, where he started working as a priest, compelled him to deliver Mass in Spanish. Without time to go to school, Mushi turned to the community members he lived among to understand the language his parish spoke.

“It took me six months to understand complete phrases, and two years to be able to carry on a conversation,” he said. “My relationships with Latinos from different countries led me to become familiar with slang that for some people is fine but which others find offensive. I know what unusual words mean.”

Rev. Mushi, who has been running Saint Cecilia’s Church in El Barrio for two years, stressed that communicating in Spanish is an essential requirement; non-Latino priests are increasingly obliged to learn it to be more effective in their daily work.

One example is Rev. Salvatore Sportino, an Italian priest who leads a growing Mexican and Dominican congregation at Saint Joseph’s Church in the Bronx. The Church of Saint Rose of Lima at 510 West 165th Street is another parish with a Spanish-speaking Italian clergyman.

“With few Latino priests in the city and limited church resources to bring clergymen from Latin America, speaking Spanish is a useful tool,” emphasized Rev. Mushi, whose religious community is mostly Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Dominican.

“At Sunday Mass, one only needs to look around to see a predominantly Latino presence. The community demands a priest that speaks their language,” said Alejandro Manríquez, who regularly attends Saint Cecilia’s Church.

According to an analysis of the 2011 American Community Survey by the Pew Research Center, published in August, there are an estimated 2.8 million non-Latino Spanish-speakers in the country. Nine out of ten (89 percent) were born in the U.S., and 77 percent are white.

Gena Brillantes, a community organizer of Filipina background who works with the church in Harlem, pointed out that her mother tongue is Tagalog, but she has known common Spanish words such as mesa (table), silla (chair), or tenedor (fork) since her childhood.

Brillantes believes that the Spanish rule of the Philippines, which began in 1565 and lasted for three centuries, links the island nation with the Latino diaspora.

“If I didn’t speak Spanish, I simply wouldn’t be able to do my job,” she said. “Being a Spanish-speaker opens doors for me. Paradoxically, Latino youth lose their parents’ language.”

The Pew Research Center predicts that the percentage of Latinos who speak Spanish will drop from the current 75 percent to 66 percent in 2020. The Center found that third-generation Latinos are more likely to lose the language.

“In El Barrio it’s common to hear parents speaking Spanish and their children responding in English. It’s very worrying,” said Brillantes, who learned Spanish as a missionary in Mexico and San Antonio, Texas.

Being bilingual is an immense asset in the labor market. Matthew Marienthal, a 25-year-old paralegal who works with the organization East Brooklyn Congregations in Bushwick, said that speaking Spanish helped him land a job after graduating from college.

“The economy was bad in 2010, and getting a job meant competing with dozens of people,” he said. “My Spanish gave me an advantage, even over my peers of Latino descent who didn’t speak the language.”

Marienthal added that he speaks Spanish 80 percent of the time at his job due to serving a largely Latino community.

Living in the Latino community is another factor that leads to new Spanish speakers learning the language naturally. Chun Ju Zhang, a Chinese cashier who works at shop that sells beauty products on 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, said that while she isn’t fluent in Spanish, she can pronounce some phrases smoothly thanks to her co-workers.

“I only speak a little Spanish because I listen to my co-workers when they talk,” she explained. “I like to learn words and get to know their culture.”

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