Visiting scholar examines intersections of New Mexican language and identities

While examining how first-generation immigrant communities in New Mexico interact with long-standing northern New Mexican communities, Lillian Gorman found the convergence of cultures affected not only Spanish language use but also views on personal identity.

Gorman, an assistant professor of Spanish sociolinguistics and U.S. Latinx cultural studies at the University of Arizona, worked as a visiting professor at The University of New Mexico for the spring 2020 semester to finish her book project about ethnolinguistic recontact zones in New Mexico.

In Gorman’s research, the ethnolinguistic recontact zones she analyzed involve families with one parent coming from a longstanding nuevomexicano heritage and the other parent being a first-generation Mexican immigrant, an individual who migrated to the United States after the age of 12. Gorman interviewed nine New Mexican families.

“I feel there hasn’t been a lot of attention to those internal differences within the Hispanic communities in New Mexico and specifically northern New Mexico,” Gorman said. “So, I really wanted to look at those differences and similarities and the way that these communities interact or don’t interact.”

According to Gorman, the idea of ethnolinguistic recontact zones blends together two different theoretical frameworks — ethnolinguistic identity and zones of contact. The concept of ethnolinguistic identity is defined as the ideas an individual has about language and how that is linked to one’s identity.

Zones of contact are areas where there are power disparities between a majority group in power and a minority group, specifically looking at how these two groups influence each other.

Gorman’s book project, “Ethnolinguistic Recontact Zones: U.S. Latina/o identities and language among Nuevomexicano Families in Northern New Mexico,” serves as an extension to her dissertation where she interviewed different New Mexican families that fit the profile she wished to examine.

“I definitely wanted to address the ways that the different communities have assumptions and beliefs about each other that aren’t necessarily built on day-to-day real interactions,” Gorman said. “But there are those day-to-day real interactions and intimate relationships that some New Mexicans do have and their knowledge is informed by those daily experiences.”

She uses the concept of language recontact to allude to the nuevomexicano side of the family continuing the relationship with the Spanish language, which could have been gradually lost through language shift. Gorman said that because the New Mexican had a partner from Mexico, they experienced a surge of confidence in their Spanish language use.

“That’s interesting because you have a way that Spanish is persisting in these families in northern New Mexico where the general trend is that generation by generation Spanish gets lost,” Gorman said, adding that the couples even learned different words and ways of speaking from each other.

This improved relationship with the Spanish language not only transpired in the spouse but in the couple’s adult children, however, the adult children seemed more concerned with the “correct” way to speak.

“The variety of Spanish that the nuevomexicanos speak is different from the varieties that the Mexican individuals speak. And it’s generally different just simply by words that are used,” Gorman said. “But there are definitely little battles that go on as to which is the correct word.”

Gorman said the adult children’s idea of the language became validated if it was used by either the Mexican parent or their Mexican side of the family and that they were less accepting of different ways of speaking Spanish.

“They definitely were less likely to say they used or wanted to use Spanglish — mixing the English and Spanish,” Gorman said. “They associated it a lot of times with their New Mexican side of the family who they thought ‘oh, they don’t know the word, they made it up.'”

She said that one of the participants said that she was talking to her mother in Mexico about how her husband’s family spoke, highlighting the differences. The mother told her daughter that the way her husband’s family speaks is not wrong, just older and that her grandparents spoke in the same way.

“That’s kind of a transformation that occurs where they learn there is this mutual knowledge about each other,” Gorman said.

Gorman attributes this finding to the adult children possibly being made fun of by their Mexican side of the family when they used a New Mexican dialect or blended English and Spanish.

“They were more rigid with those ideas, whereas even their Mexican parents in my interviews with them would use a lot of switching and Spanglish,” Gorman said. “And their New Mexican parents were very open to that as well because that’s what they grew up doing.”

Gorman also explored the strong connection between language and identity within the families, especially within the adult children.

“The Mexican/nuevomexicano individuals, the adult children, were very wary to use the term Mexican to describe themselves because even though they understood that one of their family members is from Mexico and they have that Mexican heritage, they felt they couldn’t claim to be Mexican unless they had a certain proficiency in Spanish,” Gorman said.

In addition to identity being connected to language, Gorman also saw identity linked to location with most interviewed individuals identifying as Hispanic and using that word to describe their New Mexican identities.

“It wasn’t this larger government term ‘Hispanic’ that’s used on the census or anything like that. It was very place-based,” Gorman said.

She added that in the broader American context, Hispanic is viewed as a panethnic term imposed by the government. This broader context also influenced Gorman to use the term “Latina/o” as an additional panethnic tern so her research could apply to the field of Latinx studies.

“(Latina/o is ) used in a theoretical sense but I am very aware that that’s not something that is a term that is commonly used in New Mexico and specifically northern New Mexico to self identify,” Gorman said.

Gorman, who has roots in Albuquerque’s South Valley and the west side as well as northern New Mexico, said she wants her research to help New Mexicans to be able to better relate themselves to other Latino groups and be able to open up a dialogue about nuevomexicano identity.

“I definitely hope that this project allows nuevomexicanos to reflect and be able to put their experiences in dialogue and then in turn be able to take that and be able to go outside of New Mexico and do that,” Gorman said.

Gorman also said she hopes whoever reads her book understands the complexities and nuances of relationships between different Latino groups residing in New Mexico.

“I think there’s a lot of power in us coming from different Latino groups, learning about each other’s histories, learning about the ways that we overlap and the ways that we can create strength. And also understanding our differences and our conflicts,” Gorman said. “We need to know how to talk about who we are as nuevomexicanos.”

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