Daniel Abeyta Is a “Rebel” Doing His Part to Preserve Language

Next Thursday, Bosque Spanish teacher Daniel Abeyta will take the stage at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC)  to present, as part of a research contingent, his experience in a multi-year study which looked at bilingualism and New Mexico Spanish. The NHCC event is free, open to the public, and will be held in Salon Ortega from 5–7 pm on November 8.

Through a series of interviews with bilingual speakers throughout Central and Northern New Mexico, researchers sought to observe the ways in which the Spanish language has been preserved in smaller communities and also how it has changed over time. The findings from years of research were recently published in a book called Bilingualism in the Community: Code-switching and Grammars in Contact.

“Code-switching is just transitioning between two different languages,” Daniel said. “English to Spanish and vice versa. Some people call it Spanglish.”

Daniel, who at the time of his involvement in the research was a graduate student studying linguistics, humbly describes his role in the study as “small”—coordinating and conducting interviews and also training his undergraduate colleagues on how to engage with those being interviewed.

But despite only being involved in one “tour” during the study and interviewing/interacting with at least two dozen people, the research experience added to an already meaningful, and personal, relationship that Daniel had with language, particularly the Spanish language.

“Research shows that by the third generation, the mother language of immigrants who come to the United States is lost,” he said.

And on one side of his family, his mom’s, Daniel was that third generation at risk of losing his mother language.

“It was being lost; it was in the process of dying out in my family,” Daniel said. “It was my grandparents’ first language, and they were punished in school for speaking Spanish.”

Consequently, the language wasn’t passed down to his parents nor to him. But then...

“I started taking Spanish classes in high school,” he said. “I had a Spanish teacher who really inspired me to rescue it, and to learn it, and to study abroad during college and become fluent; he really encouraged me that I could do it.”

Daniel said there were times that he felt like giving up, but his teacher continued to encourage him. Eventually, he would go on to live in Costa Rica for a year with a host family, and then other opportunities emerged that allowed him to travel and do research in Spain and Nicaragua.

“In those travels, I was able to learn more,” he said. “I eventually decided to get my bachelor’s and master's in the language and just continue to pass it on to the next generation.”

Today, Spanish is the only language he speaks to his children, a two-and-a-half year old son and 8-month-old daughter.

“It’s a quest to preserve part of my culture,” he said. “It’s slowly dying out and I’m kind of a rebel who says ‘no, we’re going to maintain it as best we can for as long as we can.’ But it’s taken an incredible amount of patience and intentionality.”

“The main reason I fell in love with Spanish is because I realized it opened doors for me to build friendships and relationships with Spanish speakers,” he said. “Because really language is driven through relationships.”

And it’s that relationship-building that Daniel most enjoyed during his time working with the research team, meeting members of various communities and learning more, not only about their use of language, but about them as individuals.

“As an interviewer, I was looking for good stories,” he said. “That’s where the true, authentic language comes out.”  

He said open-ended questions would get interviewees telling stories about their childhood and growing up, their community, and much more.  

“We got a lot of amazing stories,” Daniel said. “My favorite part was building relationships and getting to know the people. You heard stories of people's involvement in World War II, you heard stories of ancient traditions that now have passed away and haven’t been passed on to the following generations, and just hearing their beautiful use of the language. A lot of times you don’t have the time to just sit down with your elders and talk to them and hear their stories, so that was the most powerful part.”

Fortunately for Daniel, his elders were among those he had a chance to interview during his research. Two of the interviews he conducted were with his grandparents, an experience that he says is bittersweet.

“My grandma is still alive, but my grandpa passed away this past summer, so he won’t get to see (the book). So that’s bitter,” he said. “But the sweet part is that he lives on through studies like these. He’s made a contribution to the greater community, the research community, in a way that’s just amazing. Obviously he lives on as I continue to speak the language and pass it on to my kids, his traditions and his stories.. One of the most rewarding experiences was learning Spanish and finally being able to talk to my grandpa in Spanish. I got to know a different side of him.”

Daniel Abeyta has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish Literature and a master’s degree in Linguistics from the University of New Mexico. The event, Bilingualism and New Mexico Spanish will take place on Thursday, November 8 from 5–7 pm at the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s Salon Ortega. The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are requested.