El español de los Estados Unidos - does it really matter?

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The New York Times just published an article entitled Do Latino Voters Really Care if the 2020 Candidates Speak Spanish?, where they cite sources derived from a Pew Reseach survey to question whether the Spanish language really is ‘such a big deal’ or not for the upcoming 2020 election. My first thought upon reading the piece was: are we really basing our informed conclusions on partial interpretations of estimates and polls, when they have majorly and disastrously let us down before? And in the case of the article in question: are we really speaking in comparable terms about the efforts of Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker or Pete Buttigieg AGAINST the background, the heritage and the life experience of Julián Castro? And are we really asking whether the Latinx electorate really CARE about their future representatives and their Spanish? And should they?

The article states that “only 13 percent of Latinos who are currently registered to vote in the United States speak Spanish as their primary language“, so what’s all the fuss about the language and why should it matter? I would like to argue that this is only a partial and insufficient representation of the abundant data provided by Pew Hispanic, which is the source cited by the NYTimes. What the article doesn’t mention is that half of the surveyed Hispanx population has thought about the coming election “Some/only a little”, which by de facto already questions the rest of any answers based on politics. But of the surveyed voters,

49% of them are more enthusiastic about voting in the coming election than in previous occasions. given that 69% disapprove of the current President and that 67% think that the Trump administration’s policies have been harmful for Hispanic/Latinx communities, this should be good news for Democratic candidates, IF they don’t take it for granted, as I mentioned in a previous post.

But this point also pales in comparison with these two statistics:

I am proud to be Hispanic-Latinx - 97% completely/mostly agree (which fully includes registered voters that are foreign-born, US born, 2nd, and 3rd or higher generation)

I am proud to be an American - 84% completely/mostly agree (with the same population as above)

Now let’s ponder that out of the 97% of this active electorate, 78% (of all generation-case scenarios) consider that they can carry on a conversation in Spanish, both understanding and speaking very/pretty well. 71% can read a newspaper or book in Spanish very/pretty well, and 40% are BILINGUAL (with the other 60% being equally English or Spanish dominant).

My case in point: can we rethink the question of whether Spanish really matters to the Latinx electorate and (given the data) go a little deeper about the actual reality of the mostly bilingual Latinx communities in the US?

Megan Figueroa, a University of Arizona-based researcher, recently wrote a post on her blog about Latinxs and Spanish in the United States, recounting an earlier time in her life when Spanish was an exotic trait to have, but not an encouraged skill to cultivate. Her story is relevant and resonates with countless other Latinxs who had similar experiences. Latino USA features an exploratory segment called SOMOS, which tackles issues of Latinx identity in the US from the point of view of people across the country. The stories speak of discrimination against both language knowledge and language use, where Latinxs are chastised, vilified and silenced on their freedom to express themselves in Spanish. And they speak of their parents, their abuelas and abuelos, and how they chose to relegate Spanish to the very intimate household circle, or to even refuse to speak it beyond the older generation.

Scores of US-born Latinxs are scorned in their family’s homeland by their own relatives because they speak too much like gringos, as well as by their teachers and professors at school in the US because their Spanish is not good enough. In many universities across the country, mine included, Latinxs are placed into Spanish-as-a-foreign language courses because a) their Spanish is perceived as grammatically lacking (especially at the written level which, given that they were never formally educated in Spanish, makes a lot of sense); b) there are no/not enough Spanish-as-a-heritage language courses to meet them at their level.
Many shy away from even speaking with other native speakers of Spanish because their Spanish “isn’t very good”, or ask for meanings in proper/real/correct Spanish (whatever that might be), directly implying that theirs isn’t any of those things.

And that’s the scenario with which Latinxs across the US contend with, Julián Castro included, where identity, background, heritage and language go hand in hand, inseparable and immesurable.

Enter Beto O’Rourke and the other Democratic candidates, whose Spanish is spoken at the mid-elementary or low-intermediate level. Some, like O’Rourke, took Spanish in high school. Or Cory Booker, who went to Ecuador and other countries and took Spanish courses in an immersion context, paired with an active role in Spanish-speaking communities throughout his political career. But their case is enormously different. Their Spanish is not scrutinized or frowned upon: their errors in speech are not analyzed, their accent not mocked, their proficiency level not questioned, their cultural heritage not discussed. And neither are all the other candidates, with their campaign websites translated directly from English and a poorly-sought connection with the Latinx electorate and the Spanish that they may or may not speak. Especially if the candidates are white.

Studies in Second Language Acquisition reveal that the native speakers of a language show a high degree of tolerance for foreign language learners/speakers and their errors in the target language. So these candidates can capitalize on their Spanish as an asset on the campaign trail, whereas the same proves to be a double-edged sword for Julián Castro, who will always be measured against a fictional characterization of the Spanish one is supposed to master as a Latinx in the United States (and regardless of whether they are foreign or US born).

So given the political climate we live in, where the Spanish language and the Hispanic/Latinx ethnicity and identity are polarized and often used to exclude and discredit, it MATTERS AND CARRIES WEIGHT into the wider social conversation to have Democratic candidates who make a point of speaking or addressing the bilingual electorate in both their languages, and who bring Spanish to the forefront of the political discourse.

If candidates of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds use Spanish to connect with the Latinx communities they hope to represent -and beyond-, THEY WILL NORMALIZE the social presence of the language and with it, the acceptance of its diversity and the values of a cultural identity that goes well beyond the language itself. Really.