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López: Do you speak Spanish? – (¿Habla Usted Español?)



It may come as a surprise to some people, but Spanish language classes are most popular in U.S. college/university campuses.

Why? It could be that over fifty million people in the U.S. speak Spanish, with many of us being bi-lingual, which means we also speak perfect English. In fact, the U.S. now has the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking population, following only Mexico.

Those are simple demographic statistics that have attracted the attention of Madison Avenue economic power brokers.Corporate advertising executives have rapidly exploited its explosive money-making opportunities by filling TV screens and media outlets with an ever increasing number of ads aimed at Spanish-speaking consumers.

Fair is fair. Spanish is not a “foreign” language in the U.S. That’s especially true when one considers that nearly half of the U.S. mainland (south of the 35th parallel) was once Spanish territory. Add the fact that the entire Southwest was populated with Spanish-speaking residents and their brethren Native Americans when the U.S. took the territory from the sovereign Republic of Mexico in 1848. Their descendants still live and thrive there!

Specifically, here’s some reasons for the abundant use of Spanish in our country:

(l) Most everything historically old in the Southwest is in Spanish. (See previous paragraph.).

(2) Spanish-speaking citizens of the Southwest preserve their lineage to Spanish Mexican founders.

Oddly, most of the English-speaking U.S. population is bewildered when they hear Spanish. Particularly, in this day of erupting anti-immigrant rhetoric, many people in the U.S. react negatively when they hear Spanish being spoken in this country. They wrongly connect the Spanish language with the arrival of recent immigrants.

Equally, many Anglo Saxon and Nordic-descent citizens erroneously continue to believe that all fifty states started off as English colonies in the east coast. Thus, they expect everyone in Arizona, New (Nuevo) Mexico, California, Colorado, and Texas (all states named in Spanish) to speak only English. That presumption directly causes them to miss the point that the Southwest’s unique vibrant Native American/Mexican character is a New Spain trait, not New England’s; and

(3), Spanish Mexican residents (descendants) originating in the Southwest are not immigrants, because they trace their lineage to its Spanish Mexican founders.In other words, they were already here when the U.S. took the land from Mexico. This distinction is what separates us from other Spanish-speaking groups that came later as immigrants.

However, even with its earned popularity, the Spanish language enjoys a less-than-respectful reputation in the U.S. where the naïve “English Only” movement dominates U.S. mainstream society.

It is sufficient to say that fluency in other languages is not valued nor encouraged in the U.S. Why is that? The answer is found in two related concepts in the development of the U.S. called Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

Manifest Destiny is an elitist 19th Century way of thinking proclaiming that Anglo Saxons have a God-given right to take Mexico’s land. Likewise, American Exceptionalism claims dominance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and suggests that the U.S. Anglo Saxon society is superior to all other groups around the world. That’s the reason why today, far-right conservatives (as in Arizona and Texas) continue to subjugate its Spanish-surnamed residents.

However, how did Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism come to specifically target the Spanish language and Mexican-descent citizens in the U.S.? The answer is that racism was very much alive in 1848 when the U.S. took over Texas, South Texas, and the Southwest.

It was exposed when Senator John C. Calhoun asked on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico?Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.”

Ever since, Senator Calhoun’s racist marching orders served as the basis to re-cast the Southwest into an Anglo Saxon mold. Because of their Spanish surname and/or their brown skin, Mexican-descent citizens (and their Native American brethren) in the Southwest endure discrimination to this day. (In Texas, mandated unequal treatment of Mexican-descent citizens continued for over 100 years and didn’t (officially) end until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court “Class Apart” Decision.)

Albeit, the long-lasting effect of discrimination in Texas is still visible today, where the question, “¿Hablas Español?” is sometimes received by nervous shyness from Spanish Mexican-descent Texans. Whether they speak Spanish or not, some have been taught not to admit that they do.

The answer is sadly simple. Many of them share a common story as to why they don’t speak Spanish or speak it poorly.They recall that as they were growing up, their parents regularly cautioned them: “Hija (hijo), no hables Español porque no te van a querer (o ocupar) los Anglos.” (Daughter (son), don’t speak Spanish, because the Anglos won’t like (or hire) you).” In their defense, parents only wished to protect their children from the sting of bigoted attacks within mainstream society’s humiliating treatment they experienced themselves.

With the huge number of U.S. Mexican-descent citizens (over 35 million and growing), it’s time to repel attacks on our wonderful culture. So, if you have Spanish Mexican roots, don’t be misled into thinking that to practice good U.S. citizenship, you must abandon your roots.

As such, this Hispanic Heritage Month, learn about our beautiful Mexican Spanish origins in Texas and the Southwest.For starters, join a Hispanic genealogy society in your area. Take Conversational Spanish classes; visit the Tejano Monument in Austin, and the Spanish Governors Palace in San Antonio, and San Fernando Cathedral, where Catholic masses have been said in Spanish since the 1730s.

Lastly, I offer a response to Senator John C. Calhoun. It may be 170 years late, but it’s necessary, nonetheless. Yes, Senator, we are an “Indians and Mixed-race” people. However, those are attributes that we cherish because they make us who we are.

First, being ‘Indian” directly connects us to the land (America). Second, being of “mixed race of Mexico” (Mexican heritage) gives us our blended Spanish European and Native American lineage. Additionally, our names may be Spanish, but most of us possess the brown skin and facial features of our Native American ancestors.

On the plus side, the future looks bright for today’s new generation of Mexican-descent students, especially in South Texas and Rio Grande Valley (RGV). They are beautiful, smart, and fearless. They are not easily intimidated and don’t appear willing to accept second-class treatment.

They are rediscovering who they are and where they came from. Knowing that their heritage is as good as any other in the U.S., let’s hope that when asked “¿Habla Usted Español?” they won’t hesitate to respond “Claro que sí.”

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