When I was a child, growing up in northern Westchester County in New York State in the late 1950s, there were very few Hispanics in the area. My family had some contact with Spaniards, Portuguese, and Latin Americans who were sprinkled around the county, particularly in the Mt. Kisco area, but these were small groups. Later when I was an adolescent during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an influx of Puerto Ricans into the area. I remember several students who ended up in my high school, but the real concentration was in the city of Peekskill, NY where my mother worked as an ESL teacher. Many of her students were Puerto Rican.
Today the demographics are very different. The local Puerto Rican population gradually intermarried with other groups or moved to other states like Connecticut and Florida, becoming somewhat "invisible" in the process. During the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of Central Americans and South Americans began arriving in the area. Today when you walk the streets of Peekskill (and most other Hudson River towns), you see Guatemalans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, and Hondurans shopping, working in fast food enterprises, or waiting at paradas (work stops) for day work. Many of the Guatemalans arrived as a result of the 36-year long civil war in Guatemala which left the country's economy devastated. Most of the new arrivals end up working as roofers, landscape workers, fast food employees, cleaners, and nannies.
The new population is immediately identifiable by physical appearance and linguistic traits. They tend to be short, somewhat stocky, with straight black hair, what Puerto Ricans would term indio. In fact, quite a few have Spanish as their second language, being native speakers of some variety of indigenous Native American languages. Their Spanish is softly, almost hesitantly, spoken in contrast to the louder and more nasal cadences of the Puerto Rican Spanish I am used to. Their use of the second person singular pronoun vos for friends and formal usted for almost everybody else sounds old-fashioned and charming . I also love learning the regionally distinctive words they use for common referents like elote instead of maiz for "corn," patojos or cipotes instead of nenes for "small children," and pisto instead of dinero for "money." Even a small difference like saying mango (with the stress on the "a" instead of mangó (with the stress on the "o" as it's done in Puerto Rico make my linguist's antennae go on alert. I just love linguistic diversity!
I was shopping in Marshall's and overheard a conversation among three Guatemalan men while waiting on line to pay. The first two were clearly close friends (using vos to address one another and making reference to shared activities). A third man approached them, and everybody switched to usted as the pronoun of address, indicating a change to mere acquaintance or stranger discourse. The newcomer asked them what they were going to do after they paid for their purchases. The two men asserted that they had nothing special planned, upon which he asked if they could spare him a few minutes to talk about something that was of great importance to him and would be to them, too. They nodded assent politely, and he went outside to wait for them. The first man then turned to the second and asked what he thought the man wanted to talk to them about, and the second guy shrugged and said "Probablemente nos quiere hablar de Cristo" ("He probably wants to talk to us about Christ.). The second shrugged agreebly, and they fell silent. I was left wondering why that topic had been seized upon as the most likely instead of, say, a possible job or a community program.
A cultural mystery for another day.