Today's Topic



Every Child
Should Speak English,
Part I

Part II

Natalia J. Garland

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Senator McCain and Senator Obama, two presidential candidates, seem to think that the Spanish language holds special significance for Americans. In recent speeches, each candidate seemed to advocate for Spanish as a language that Americans should learn or revere above all other foreign languages. In this two-part essay, I will share my personal reactions to and interpretations of the senators' remarks. I will start with McCain's remarks to a group of Hispanics in Chicago in June, 2008.

Did you know this? I bet some of you did not know that Spanish was spoken in Arizona before English.
[End of quote.]

Is this correct? Was Spanish spoken in Arizona before English? And, if so, why should this matter to McCain's presidential campaign? What is he trying to say? Is McCain overlooking the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which America obtained present-day Arizona from Mexico? If Spanish was spoken first, it is only because the conquistadors of Spain brought the Spanish language with them. The first languages spoken in America and Mexico were the languages of various indigenous peoples. In Arizona, for example, the first languages branched from the Hokan, Na-Dene, Aztec-Tanoan, and Zuni language families.

It is as though McCain is saying that Spanish is to Arizona what Gaelic is to Ireland. He seems be hinting that Spanish was Arizona's rightful language at one time, like Gaelic in Ireland, but that it was later displaced by the English-speaking conquerers. Moreover, again like the Gaelic-speakers in Ireland, the Spanish-speakers in Arizona are right to maintain or restore the true heritage of the Southwest. This argument would likely appeal to the reconquista sentiments among certain Hispanics of Mexican descent.

There is a problem, however, with any comparison between Spanish and Gaelic. There would never have been the opportunity or compulsion to state that Spanish was spoken in Arizona before English if it were not for the large number of illegal immigrants and the Americans who advocate for their citizenship and right to vote. The Gaelic-speakers in Ireland are Irish citizens, and not all Irish are fluent in Gaelic even though it is a part of their heritage. By contrast, much of the Spanish spoken in America is the result of massive and illegal immigration, and not the result of having descended from the original Spanish-speakers of the pre-treaty Arizona territory.

It would probably be accurate to say that many contemporary Spanish-speakers in Arizona do not have familial roots in Arizona history or culture. Their roots are in Mexico or other Spanish-speaking nations. This would appear to be true of illegal immigrants. Although the American-born children of illegal immigrants might identify as Americans, their familial heritage or ancestry does not reach back to the early days of Arizona--the days to which McCain seems to refer. As American-born citizens, these children inherit the rights accorded to them under the Constitution [see Bibliography Notes]; and they can identify with and embrace all aspects of American history and culture, beyond their ethnicity, to the extent that they acquire such knowledge and values.

Would McCain ever say that Chinese was spoken in San Francisco before English? The fact is that San Francisco's Chinatown district has always been a Chinese-speaking community. Chinese was probably spoken in Chinatown before English, and seems to remain the dominant language of those who live there or own businesses there. One difference between Chinese-speakers and Spanish-speakers in America, however, is that there has not been a massive movement of illegal immigrants from China into America. The use of the Chinese language remains contained within communities, while Spanish spreads with the ongoing movement of Hispanic illegal immigrants throughout all parts of America. Moreover, the indigenous peoples of California were speaking their languages before the English-speakers and Chinese-speakers developed today's city of San Francisco (which is a Spanish word).

McCain's reference to the Spanish language seemed like a cultural and political dismissal of the indigenous peoples. As a senator from Arizona, McCain should know that the Native Americans were the first peoples to populate Arizona--before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and before the political concept of reconquista. Being first, however, or having come before something else, is not the baseline from which we can solve the complicated problems of immigration. Should we all become Puritans because they were the first religious group to establish a settlement? Or, should we study the Puritans with objectivity and historical perspective?

The problem of illegal immigration must be approached according to law: the current laws have been violated by illegal immigrants, businesses, and governments. McCain overlooked these facts, and referred sentimentally, politically, and symbolically to the Spanish language. Spanish does not enjoy the same status as Gaelic, but it is nevertheless becoming the co-official language of America. If McCain becomes president, and if he continues to support comprehensive immigration reform, then he must also be prepared to grapple with the resulting social and cultural ramifications for America. He must seriously consider if he wants America to become a bilingual English/Spanish nation, and he must explain why he has given less significance to Chinese, Zuni, and the many other languages spoken in America. (Written 07/17/08: bibliography available.)

[NOTE: This is the third preparatory essay for future writing on what I call the Spanish Language Movement. To read the other preparatory essays, see Languages in America: Legislation and Costs (written 03/10/08), Mexico's Cultural Imperialism (written 05/19/08).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland