The Politics of Spanish

Living in California, it’s hard to miss the importance of the Spanish language in local and state politics. Now we’re seeing the same thing at the national level. As Hector Becerra points out in a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times, Spanish was a prominent presence at both the Republican and the Democratic national conventions. From Florida’s Cuban American senator Marco Rubio on the right to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the left, Latino political figures are flexing their linguistic muscle as never before. Anglos like Craig Romney and Joe Kennedy III also got in on the act, drawing on a longstanding political strategy for wooing minority language communities.

Yet, inevitably, the rising profile of Spanish on the national political stage is stirring up controversy, at least in one corner of the blogosphere. San Antonio mayor Julián Castro in particular came in for criticism for his repeated use of a Spanish phrase from his Mexican grandmother – Que Dios los bendiga ‘May God bless you’ – in his speech at the Democratic convention. The critic’s objection? Castro has said that he’s not fully fluent in Spanish.

But that complaint misses the point. Castro’s Spanish, like most on-stage use of the language at both conventions, was symbolic. Even someone who spoke no Spanish at all could have used the phrase without risking communicative failure. Nor was Castro making an illegitimate claim to a Spanish-speaking identity. Instead, he was asserting a legitimate claim to a Latino identity – an identity that includes Spanish, even for the many Latinos who, like Castro, have already lost their language of heritage or are currently undergoing language shift to English. In fact, Castro has reportedly sought tutoring to improve his Spanish – which his critic decries as more evidence of shameless pandering to his Mexican American constituency (rather than, say, an effort to serve them more effectively).

The view from California, where Latinos are on track to become the state’s largest ethnoracial group, suggests that Spanish is going to continue to be part of the national political discourse – if only in symbolic form – for some time to come. But the Republican platform’s ongoing call to make English the official language of the United States is no less symbolic. Immigrants are already eager to learn English, and there’s no meaningful threat to English from Spanish or any other language.* The reality is that Latinos are losing their language faster than ever – now often within two generations of arrival in the United States, or even in a single generation, as I’ve witnessed among young Latinos in my own classes and community. Our nation’s Spanish-speaking population is replenished through ongoing immigration, not through the use of the language by later generations. As with German, Italian, and a host of other immigrant languages throughout our nation’s history, Spanish too is yielding to English.

Contemplating this grim linguistic picture – children struggling to communicate with their grandparents and even their parents, their sophisticated linguistic abilities eroded or eradicated rather than nurtured – it’s somewhat heartening to see both major political parties acknowledging the importance of including Spanish speakers in our national dialogue. But ultimately the strength of our politicians' commitment to linguistically subordinated groups can only be revealed by their policies. Meanwhile, given our nation’s shameful record of enforced monolingualism, any American, whether Latino or not, who has managed to gain or retain any amount of Spanish should be applauded, not criticized.

* Rumbaut, Rubén G., Douglas S. Massey, & Frank D. Bean (2006). Linguistic life expectancies: Immigrant language retention in Southern California. Population and Development Review 32(3): 447-460.