Spanish is a lovely tongue…
Some recent incidents involving the use of Spanish (more on these below) brought to mind an essay entitled “Saints and sinners all agree…” I wrote several years ago. I took the title from a line in a Texas Tornados song (“She never spoke Spanish to me”) that asserts that “Saints and sinners all agree, Spanish is a lovely tongue…” The essay’s theme was that language is often used as a vehicle for racism. It is illogical to hate a language—the haters really hate the speakers of the language, not the language itself.
Princeton University history professor Rosina Lozano noted recently that up through the first decades of the 20th century Spanish was for all intents and purposes an official language of politics and government throughout the Southwest. But then, spurred by a surge in Mexican immigration and the cultural changes that occasioned, the U.S. went on an “Americanization” binge. By 1921, the teaching of languages other than English in public primary schools was outlawed in many states (California even outlawed it in private schools). (Lozano, Rosina, “Spanish has never been a foreign language in the United States,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2018)
The “Americanization” craze …
I am of the Chicano Generation, and we were caught up in the “Americanization” craze. We attended school in the 1950s and 1960s, and although we were born and raised in the good ol’ USA, we were considered “foreigners” and were beaten or otherwise punished (e.g., having our mouths washed out with soap) for speaking Spanish on the schoolgrounds. And because our names were in a “foreign” language, our names were arbitrarily changed to “American” versions.
Since the time of the “Americanization” campaigns, there have been many judicial and legislative actions that ostensibly blunt the racism of those campaigns. One of the most noteworthy of these was the passage in 1968 of Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the “Bilingual Education Act,” the first piece of federal legislation that recognized the educational value of bilingualism.
Spanish used as vehicle for racism …
Those judicial and legislative actions notwithstanding, in my “Saints and sinners all agree…” essay I provided the following sampling of then-recent incidents that exemplify how Mexican haters use Spanish as the vehicle for their racism:
In 1995, then-Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich condemned bilingual education, saying that (Spanish-English) bilingualism poses “long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation.”
A 2005 Arizona Republic article quotes (then-Arizona Senate President) Russell Pearce as saying about a Mexican American teenage co-worker: “He couldn’t speak English, so me and the other workers made fun of him.” Pearce would later, in 2010, sponsor SB 1070, the infamous “show me your papers” law.
In 2006, Pearce (who was then in the AZ House of Representatives) tried to elevate his lifelong disdain for Spanish speakers to the status of law by sponsoring an “English Only” referendum that would outlaw the use of Spanish in Arizona.
[Pearce’s attempt to outlaw Spanish was the language counterpart to then-Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s attempt to outlaw the learning about Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Arizona. I am pleased to remind readers that as a direct consequence of his sponsoring SB 1070, Pearce was recalled in 2011.]
In Philadelphia, in 2006, Geno’s, the famous cheesesteak joint, established a policy that Spanish was not allowed in Geno’s. The owner said that he was specifically targeting Philadelphia’s growing Mexican population.
In 2006, in Springfield, Tennessee, the City Manager and an Alderman expressed concerns that “illegal immigrants” were using city parks on weekends. When asked how he knew the Spanish speakers were “illegal immigrants,” the Alderman said he suspected anyone speaking Spanish of being in the country illegally.
In 2007, the Mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, called for a boycott of McDonald’s until a Spanish-language billboard advertising McDonald’s iced coffee was taken down. In an interview on Fox News, the Mayor stated that 20% of his community speaks Spanish, which he found offensive and divisive.
Also in 2007, to the loud cheers of his audience, the National Federation of Republican Women, Gingrich again condemned Spanish-English bilingualism and described Spanish as a “ghetto language.”
In April, 2010, then-Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s attack on Mexican American Studies spilled over to Spanish when he issued a directive prohibiting teachers with accents from teaching classes for students still learning English (given his anti-Mexican history and the demographics of these classes, I’m pretty sure Horne was not targeting German, Russian, or Czechoslovakian accents).
In June, 2011, in Orange County, CA, the Board of Supervisors refused to fund a mental-health program because it used the Spanish word “promotora” instead of “health care worker.” The Promotora program recruits trusted and respected members within isolated communities to serve as community health workers or, in Spanish, “promotoras.”
The irony in Orange County is mind boggling: County Supervisors in the city named SANTA ANA will not fund programs that have components named in Spanish!
And it’s still going on …
While the above examples occurred several years ago, the following recent examples make clear that the phenomenon they describe continues to this day:
In the fall of 2016, a woman was speaking Spanish with her children in a California Walmart. A shopper who overheard the Spanish conversation told the Spanish speaker to speak English because this is America and English is spoken here.
In March, 2018, a woman was speaking to her 3-year-old daughter in Spanish in a Walmart in Georgia. A shopper confronted the Spanish speaker and told her that this is America and that people who don’t speak English should get out of the country.
In May, 2018, a lawyer in a New York City restaurant verbally assaulted two women customers and a restaurant employee for speaking Spanish to each other. Yelling, “It’s America!,” the lawyer called ICE “…to have each one of them kicked out of my country … I pay for their welfare…” The Spanish speakers were not undocumented nor were they on welfare.
Also in May, 2018, a Border Patrol agent detained and questioned two women—both U.S. citizens—when he overheard them speaking Spanish at a gas station in Montana. The agent explained that the reason he detained them was because they were speaking Spanish in a state that is predominantly English-speaking.
Spanish is an American language …
Over the last couple of decades Spanish has become a proxy for the very contentious debate about immigration, giving rise to the kind of occasions described above. Documenting Hate, a national coalition of news organizations that tracks incidences of bias in public spaces and hate crimes around the country, has documented many reports of verbal assaults for speaking Spanish since the 2016 Presidential election. This is not surprising. After all, Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and during the 2016 Republican Primary, then-candidate Trump berated rival Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish, saying, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”
Trump and his ilk are wrong. The U.S. has no official language. According to the U.S. census, about 38-40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish, making it the second most used tongue in the country. And, Spanish was spoken in what is now the U.S. way before English was. As professor Lozano notes, “Spanish is an American language.”
So, next time you see, read, or hear of a news report about someone attacking Spanish, don’t think it’s an isolated incident involving some kook politician or unhinged right winger. These incidents are in reality a manifestation of the culture of hate and racism that demagogues such as Russell Pearce, Tom Horne, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump have assiduously and disgracefully nurtured. c/s
Copyright 2018 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Photos of crowd and Chicano activists copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. Photos of Newt Gingrich and Tom Horne by Gage Skidmore used under Creative Commons copyright agreement. Walmart photo used under “fair use” proviso of copyright law. Photo of Donald Trump in public domain.