Wissot: Spanish is spoken here, there and everywhere
I was waiting for my winter tires to be fitted to my car at a Discount Tire outlet in Denver.
The top line of the sign in the waiting room read “Conozca Sus Medias”. Of course, I had no idea what that meant because I’m a monolingual native speaker of English, like most Americans.
We represent the main language spoken in this country, but not the only language of importance. More Americans speak Spanish, over 43 million to be precise, than the Spaniards in Spain. In New Mexico, 48% of 2020 census respondents identify ancestry tied to Latin America and other Spanish-speaking regions and the state has a bilingual constitution; Texas and California have the second highest share at around 39%; here in Colorado, the figure is 21%.
The Spanish language is present everywhere we go and with everything we do. While shopping at a Walmart in Glenwood Springs, I noticed that the word leche appeared right below the milk in the food aisle. Upon closer inspection, I realized that every grocery item received bilingual attention.
When was the last time you called a desk and had no choice but to continue in English or Spanish? At a Coors Field baseball game last September, the massive center field scoreboard revealed that it was Los Rockies night. When I go to the Denver Art Museum, the exhibits always have written explanations of the art I’m looking at in both languages.
Spanish is not the only language other than English, of course, spoken in this country. Travel through the bayous of Louisiana and you’ll hear people carrying on conversations in Cajun, the language adopted by French Canadians from Acadia (now Nova Scotia) who settled the area in the 18th century. If you take a trip to the islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, the Gullah language of emancipated black former slaves is frequently heard. Its origins date back to West Africa and the slave trade that brought them here.
But neither of these two regional languages, nor German, Norwegian, Swedish and Italian, spoken by 19th-century European immigrants, creates the controversy associated with the expansive role currently played by Spanish in our country. The last 70 years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants entering this country from Mexico, the Caribbean, and all of Central and South America. It is their visibility as well as the ubiquity of the Spanish language associated with them that worries some Americans about a lesser role for themselves and the English language in the foreseeable future.
Miami is a good example. More than 60 years after Fidel Castro’s first exiles from Cuba moved to South Florida, 67% of the city’s residents speak Spanish. But Miami is not alone in being a place where Spanish is dominant. Would you be surprised to learn that relatively small towns in the Midwest like Liberal and Dodge City, Kansas have the same percentage of Spanish-speaking residents as Miami? I certainly was.
Here, as elsewhere, context is important. 78% of Americans speak only English like me. In a population of 331 million, that means 258 million people, more than six times the country’s 43 million Spanish speakers. English is not about to be usurped by Spanish as the country’s primary language. But because the aggregate purchasing power of Hispanic households was estimated at $978 billion in 2021, companies eagerly present their products and services to them in Spanish. Put simply, we are and will continue to be a bilingual nation because the country’s economic interests demand it.
The rise of bilingualism is viewed with concern by white nativists. Wasn’t English, they claim, enshrined by the Founders in the constitution as America’s official language? Sorry to disappoint you, that was not the case. No language, including English, has been given preferential status or even mentioned in this document.
Thirty years ago, California attempted to pass a law making English the official state language.
The late great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, a highly educated man fully at home in the two languages and cultures separated by a politically contentious border, said wryly at the time that the desire to pass the law only meant one thing: “English was no longer the official language of the state of California.
A closer look at the history of our country reveals that languages, in addition to English, were part of the oldest linguistic landscape. Before the arrival of French and Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were, of course, the first Americans, the Native Americans, the only true Native Americans this country has ever known. How many white nativist braggarts speak Dakota? apache? Navajo? Cherokee?
Among the Europeans who fought and eventually defeated the many tribes occupying the land, English was not the only language to take firm hold. As Chris Rock joked in 1996 while reporting on the Republican National Convention for Comedy Central: “If it weren’t for the Spanish explorers, I wouldn’t be talking to you about San Diego, I’d be coming to you from Gus Johnson.” Several thousand places in this country have names of French origin, so keep that in mind the next time you travel to Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis.
I find it strange that the supporters of the sacred status of English forget that it was the French-speaking Lafayette and the German-speaking Von Steuben, Inspector General of the Continental Army, who helped us win the Revolutionary War. And let’s not forget that it was the English-speaking redcoats of King George III’s colonial occupation that we defeated in order to secure our freedom.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at [email protected].