Latino lingo is the ploy to win Spanish ayes

November 10, 2000

Bush and Gore spoke Spanish to woo the US's largest immigrant community. Clare Mar-Molinero explains why.

Something is happening to Spanish. The number of people speaking it is growing and, more important, they are making themselves heard. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the United States.

The 2000 US presidential election campaign was marked by a concern on the part of the main contenders to stress their "Hispanic" credentials. Both Republican and Democratic candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, were at pains to demonstrate their connections with the large US Latino community (Bush has a sister-in-law of Mexican origin and referred to " la familia Bush"), their competence in speaking Spanish (scattering Spanish phrases in their election speeches), or their awareness of Hispanic issues. Prominent Latinos were enlisted into their campaigns, and Spanish speakers were wooed in media coverage.

All this at a time when Ricky Martin (Puerto Rican American) is topping the world pop charts singing in Spanish; singer and film star Jennifer Lopez (another Puerto Rican American) is winning coveted awards; and salsa clubs are all the rage in US and European cities.

Hispanics, their culture and, above all, the Spanish language are suddenly high on both the cultural and political agenda. The prominence given in the US to the Elián González case - the Cuban boy rescued from a sinking boat and taken to Miami - brought action from both the US and Cuban governments, and highlighted the importance now given in the US to its Spanish-speaking community.

Why and how has this Spanish-speaking community risen to such a place in contemporary US society? How is it affecting US politics? What does this tell us about the role of Latinos in future US society, and, maybe, about the role of Spanish globally?

Despite being a minority within the US, Latinos are already the fourth largest Spanish-speaking community in the world, and their numbers are increasing. It is predicted that by the middle of the next century, US Latinos could number more than the population of Spain.

Spanish speakers now comprise the largest immigrant community in the US, with an estimated 32 million Hispanics, which is about 12 per cent of the total US population. It is a notable rise over earlier census figures, reflecting continued immigration and, importantly, a high birth rate among this community.

The forecasts for the next half century are for a continuing increase, with Spanish speakers overtaking American blacks as the second ethnic group after whites. In cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Houston and Miami they are or will be, the largest ethnic group. By 2020 it is predicted that the two most populous states, California and Texas, will have more Hispanics than any other ethnic group, followed shortly by the then next most populous states, Florida, New York and Illinois.

A constant misconception is that all Spanish-speaking Americans can be lumped together as a homogeneous group. On the contrary, they come from many varying backgrounds, with the Mexican community the largest, followed by Puerto Ricans and Cubans. There are immigrants from other parts of Latin America and from Spain, as well as important communities of pre-Anglo-American Spanish origin living in the southwest.

Inevitably, the immigrant groups concentrate in particular areas: California, Texas and the southwest host the Mexican-Americans, and the Mexican-US border sees a steady stream of migrants, often illegal. Puerto Ricans are found principally in New York and surrounding areas, while Florida is home to most Cuban-Americans. Many have migrated to the US in search of work and better living conditions. They are poor, under-educated, frequently of black or Indian race, and live on the edges of society. Many Cubans, however, are refugees from Castro's Cuba and tend instead to be white and middle class. They resent being linked with the image of the illiterate, impoverished "black" Hispanic.

From the early days of independence, much US legislation and many cultural traditions have revolved around creating national identity - forging a sense of American-ness through assimilation and integration, while discarding previous cultural and historical baggage. Language has been one such piece of baggage usually abandoned as immigrants have eagerly learnt, or have had their children learn, English. Language policies were few or non-existent; nowhere in the constitution is mention made of an official or national language. But, nonetheless, the role of language in American identity construction is significant.

Large waves of non-English speaking immigrants, combined with the needs of industrialisation and urbanisation, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century led to radical - and restrictive - legislation being introduced at state level, which was often subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. The civil rights period saw a liberalising of attitudes and laws concerning the use of languages other than English, which coincided with the start of the heavy influx of Hispanic immigration. Much language legislation from this moment, both in favour of linguistic diversity and, more recently, to curb it, has been, above all, aimed at the Spanish-speaking community.

In 1967, Congress introduced a bill to authorise bilingual education in public schools and mother-tongue teaching to linguistic minority children. The passing of this law is an important milestone in the US's attitude to linguistic diversity. There has been acrimonious and lengthy debate over the decades regarding the right to mother-tongue provision and the effectiveness of bilingual education. It is overwhelmingly the children of the Spanish-speaking community who are the object of these programmes. In a historic and no doubt precedent-setting vote, however, the electorate of California in June 1998 voted to abolish bilingual education in its state. This Proposition 2 was passed by a majority of 61 per cent of "yes" votes to 39 per cent of "no" votes, but with an apparent majority of Latinos (63 per cent) opposing the measure. This backlash and rejection of bilingual education - in a state with so large a population of Spanish-speakers - is a not unexpected reaction to the liberalising language legislation in the previous three decades, combined with an increasing "Hispanophobia".

It has been spearheaded by the English Only (or Official English) movement, which emerged in the 1980s and aimed to establish English as the official national language of the US, arguing that English was for all actual purposes the public language of the US.

The insecurity and retrenchment by "middle America" was a reaction to a new kind of immigration. Until then, the vast majority of immigrants had come from Europe, but, more recently, significant waves of immigrants are from non-European, developing countries in Asia and, especially, Latin America. The Hispanic community in particular has become the focus of antagonism.

In 1981, a proposed constitutional amendment to make English the only official language of the US was put to Congress. At a federal level, this proposition was considered by the majority of voters to be unconstitutional and a blatant denial of the human rights upheld in the US constitution. Despite substantial support, the proposed amendment has never acquired the necessary two-thirds majority of both houses needed to send it to the states for ratification.

However, at individual state level, English as the only official language has been far more successful: 17 states have made English their official state language. In California, not only was such an amendment passed in 1986 (Proposition 63), but in 1994, Proposition 187 was passed to refuse medical and educational services to illegal immigrants, as well as Proposition 2 in 1998 banning all bilingual education.

A consequence of these aggressive attitudes to Latinos has been a feeling of solidarity among them that was largely absent before. The struggle against the English Only movement and against discrimination and "chiquitafication" (a dumbing-down through homogenisation and stereotyping) of Latinos is being mounted increasingly from the Hispanic community. In 1994, a legal ruling declared unconstitutional the 1988 law passed by referendum in Arizona to prohibit the use of Spanish by public employees.

The diversity of the Hispanic community is reflected in politics. While in the recent elections Latinos registered to vote in greater numbers than ever before, it was never clear what would capture their votes. On the one hand, the majority has typically voted Democrat, but, on the other, Cuban Americans tend to be very conservative and therefore more likely to vote Republican. Latinos are mainly Catholic, but, nonetheless, generally, pro-abortion; they support government intervention in public services, but are against high taxes. They are divided even on "Hispanic" issues, such as the Eli n affair.

For this reason the presidential candidates concentrated more on pro-Hispanic images than on policies, and in this, the use and high profile of Spanish was crucial. Such positive images of Spanish are helping to promote it as by far the most studied foreign language in the US, and to reactivate its use in second and third-generation immigrant families where it seemed to be dying out, as well as in public bilingual signs throughout the country. These images are also, in an age of internationalisation and globalisation, being projected well beyond US frontiers and are underpinning a confidence and interest in Spanish across the world that may, in some small way, challenge the accepted belief in English-language dominance.


Clare Mar-Molinero is author of The Politics of Language in the Spanish-Speaking World: From Colonisation to Globalisation , published by Routledge, and is head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at the School of Modern Languages, University of Southampton.

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