Negotiating el dificil: English Literacy Practices in a Rural Puerto Rican Community

Principal Investigator:
Instructor, University of Puerto Rico, Department of English

This ethnographic case study explored the English literacy practices of a rural Puerto Rican community. Data collection took place over a four-month period in a school library which, with the help of a Title V grant, became a community center where students, parents, teachers, and other community members studied, surfed the internet, held meetings, and relaxed in their free time. Focal participants included junior high students, teachers, lunch ladies, parents, professionals, and retirees. The community language was Spanish, though people encountered and managed English text regularly as part of their everyday lives, including reading product labels and instructions (which are often printed in English only), navigating the computer interface, and corresponding with federal agencies such as with the federal student loan program. Though few community members claimed to speak English, almost all of the participants read and used English text. The study explored the questions: How do people negotiate English literacy practices (i.e. ways of using English text)? What is the nature English literacy practices? What channels of communication are used to accomplish one’s communicative goals (oral/written, Spanish/English)? What are the factors that matter in determining a person’s particular “linguistic toolkit” (class, gender, cross migration, schooling)? What are the consequences (in terms of identity) of decisions about English use?

Though English has earned the nickname “el difícil” (the difficult one) in Puerto Rico, preliminary findings suggest that participants were able to accomplish their communicative goals with the substantial amount of English knowledge they had. This became clear through the study of language brokering events, when someone who needed help with text in English approached someone else in order to negotiate the text. Whereas previous studies of language brokering saw these as events as one-way expert/novice interactions, this study found that participants in language brokering events brought to the interaction substantial knowledge of both Spanish and English, and that participants built on each other’s knowledge and resources to accomplish communicative goals. This study informs current thinking on English as an international and colonial language and how teaching English might build on locally relevant and meaningful practices.

PHOTO: A storage shed across the street from the school.
Text reads: “Cree en el Señor Jesuscristo…y seras salvo tu y tu casa..” (Believe in Jesus Christ and you will save yourself and your home.) “Latin Kings, Brooklyn, New York.” “Feliz Año Nuevo 1998” (Happy New Year 1998.) “Rats.”


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