Anya holds her father’s hand tightly as he encourages her to walk into her classroom. It is a Saturday morning, time for Anya’s Spanish classes at El Taller Latino Americano in East Harlem. The 4-year-old peeks into the room, where her classmates are playing with Play-Doh and listening to the teacher’s instructions. In Spanish.
The instructor, Indiana Bervis, tells the children to stand in a circle while she plays a song on her guitar. “Cabeza, hombros, piernas, pies, piernas, pies,” (Head, shoulder, legs and feet, legs and feet). The students sing along while pointing to those body parts.
“I feel that our goal in El Taller is not just to teach the language but also, to give a little bit of the culture,” Ms. Bervis said.
At a time when Latinos have been verbally attacked while speaking Spanish in public, and the incidents captured on video, New York families from diverse backgrounds still see enduring value in teaching Spanish to their young children.
Ms. Bervis, 51, describes her class as imparting the Spanish language “just like you would learn it at home.” She has taught Spanish to children between 4 and 9 years old at El Taller for four years. There are usually about 12 students said Ms. Bervis, half of them from non-Spanish-speaking households.
Anya and her parents, who are originally from Pakistan, live in Spanish Harlem, also still known as “El Barrio.” While the family is teaching her both English and Urdu, the official national language of Pakistan, they thought it important that their daughter learn conversational Spanish, so that she could interact with the community around her.
“It’s funny because when she comes home like every now and then, she will say something in Spanish, and we won’t know the meaning,” Sania Anwar, Anya’s mother, said. “[It] is a strange position to be in where your child, who is, again, 4 years old, knows something more than you do.”
El Taller Latino Americano has been around since 1979, and was the dream of its founder, Bernardo Palombo. Mr. Palombo wanted to create a space for Latinos in New York City to express their creativity during an era he described as one of oppression, amid multiple military regimes in Latin America.
“It’s also the reaffirmation that the culture of this country, by nature, is immigrant culture,” Mr. Palombo said.
Parents pay for the Spanish classes at El Taller and the organization also offers free classes in English. The Spanish curriculum is based on a model Mr. Palombo developed while working on “Sesame Street” in 1975. The goal is to teach children conversational Spanish through singing, dancing and playing.
“The kids told me how to teach, and believe it or not,” Mr. Palombo said. “We don’t even get to grammar.”
Mr. Palombo, 70, said his students learn the “Spanish of the Americas,” which he described as an anthropological approach to the language that embraces the variety of cultures within Central and South America.
“Some of the parents are Latin and don’t want the kid to forget the language,” Mr. Palombo said. Others, he said, “are people from here, that realize that New York is multilingual and like the kids to come and learn, playing.”
Back in the classroom, Zhamyr Aiden Cueva, known among his peers as Zac , quietly sings “Sientate, sientate, busca tu lugar y sientate.” (Take a seat, take a seat, find your spot and take a seat.)
Zhamyr Cueva, Zac’s father, who is Ecuadorian, says he and his Puerto Rican fiancee wanted their son to be immersed in both the language and the culture. He said Zac, 4, gets to practice with his grandparents.
“Well, I wanted him, first, in a class that he could speak to his peers,” Mr. Cueva said. “It’s a culture that’s not going to just stop in the borders of, of Latin America, it’s going to expand.”
Matilda, also 4, is the daughter of an Ecuadorian mother and a Swedish father. Her parents speak to her in Swedish, Spanish and English at home, but plan to focus on teaching her English and Spanish for now.
“I wanted to bring her here to get a little bit more immersed in Latin culture in general, and make sure she meets kids like her who are kind of biracial,” Karina Jaramillo-Saa, Matilda’s mother, said.
The conversation around hostility toward Spanish-speakers is a reality for many of these families.
“Language in the United States is very political,” said Elizabeth Taveras Rivera, a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “[It] has been used to create systems of suppression.”
For Latinos who speak Spanish in public, “you’re sort of exposing yourself to people, questioning your intelligence, questioning whether you’re part of a gang, questioning which stereotype do you fulfill,” she said.
In the past month, a lawyer, captured on video, threatened to call ICE after he heard two workers speaking Spanish at a New York deli. A few days later, a border agent in Montana questioned two women at a gas station about their immigration status. The women said it was because they were speaking Spanish in public.
On the other hand, Ms. Taveras Rivera said, non-Latino Spanish-speakers are often considered more intelligent because they speak another language.
By the end of class, Anya was dancing and jumping along with her classmates. Even Matilda, who was shy at first, was singing and playing.
When asked about any concerns regarding discrimination, the parents of Zac , Anya and Matilda all agreed that the benefits of learning Spanish were greater than any disadvantage,especially in a multicultural city like New York.
“I think the fact that we are non-whites to begin with, and immigrants, we are always kind of prepared for discrimination,” Ms. Anwar said. “In other words, this just adds another layer to it I guess.”
Mrs. Jaramillo-Saa said she planned to keep Matilda in Spanish classes, to teach her to be proud of her heritage regardless of what others might think.
“She should feel, like I am, proud of speaking another language, and if she’s going to be discriminated against, I want her to stand up for her, for that, and make sure that she understands that,” Mrs. Jaramillo-Saa said. “That it is something valuable and precious for her culture and for herself, and just the knowledge of another language in general.”