Speaking American

The freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental and premier rights in the United States, so long as the speech is in English.

That is the belief motivating a presumably senile old woman seen berating a middle-aged Latina for speaking Spanish in a Facebook video posted late last month. The confused mall walker tells the Latina’s son, who happens to be recording the incident, that a flood of non-English speakers in the United States will lead to Stalin, Hitler or Castro “com[ing] back,” though it’s not clear to where, or how the English language is a proper safeguard against totalitarianism. She also seems to believe Spanish is only or mostly spoken in Spain, chiding the señora to “go back to Spain,” “where Spanish comes from.”

The woman obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and usually it’s a petty waste of time to dwell on the ignorant and hateful blabber of the elderly. But that many, much younger people believe immigrants to the United States must speak English, and that Donald Trump’s anti-Latino nativism has earned his presidential campaign a firm base of supporters, suggests we shouldn’t discard this recent confrontation as simply the mutterings of some old geezer.

Just a couple weeks before the video surfaced, another video appeared on YouTube showing a resort manager telling a Latino family that a discount didn’t apply to Spanish speakers.


There are also plenty of Latinos who feel English should be mandatory, even at the cost of their ancestral language, whether it be Spanish, Portuguese, Quechua, Garifuna or the dozens of other languages spoken in Latin America for at least half a millennium. Since English is the lingua franca of the United States — the language of business, schooling and government — many Latinos have no qualms with immigration reform proposals that would require aspiring Americans first learn English.

According to this line of thinking, the American language is English, and so you must speak American in order to belong.

I don’t deny that English is the most commonly used language in the United States, and that proficiency in the English language, like a college degree, broadens the scope of possibility and opportunity for anyone living in the United States. (I am a writer, after all.)

Still, to say that the United States has any official language seems to me both inaccurate and un-American. Seventy-one percent of Americans may claim to be Christians, but that doesn’t make the United States a Christian nation, just as a preponderance of non-Latino whites doesn’t make ours a white country (not in principle, anyway).

Plus, that the English language provides the speaker with more access to American mainstream society doesn’t mean all newcomers need learn the language. I could think of a few other attributes that would help me scale the socioeconomic ladder — being a Protestant, a capitalist or white, for instance — all of which might make me a successful American, but none of which would make a better American.

The nation’s own history bears this out, as is frequently the case. When the original treaty (written in French) transferring the Louisiana territory to the United States was signed in 1803, there was no stipulation demanding the new U.S. citizens of New Orleans — mostly French and Spanish speakers — learn any language besides those they already spoke. The same is true of the 1848 treaty which seceded half of Mexico to the United States, and the 1890 act which granted U.S. citizenship to the native peoples of Oklahoma. When Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917, no mention of English was made, except to require that the island’s non-voting representative in Congress speak English and that all court cases be tried in English, as well.

It’s only now that Latinos are becoming such a large portion of the U.S. population, and that the non-Latino white’s portion continues shrinking, that we see efforts to make the United States an English-only or English-first nation. And it’s because non-Latino whites maintain their ascendancy that we have yet to hear calls that they learn other languages. You came hear, goes their argument, and since we outnumber you, it is you who must be more like us.

This, of course, is un-American — again, if not in practice, then at least in principle. The United States is supposed to be a cosmopolitan nation of the majority that protects the rights of the minority — protects their opinions, their beliefs, their customs and their speech.

No matter what language their speech is in.

[Photo: David Holt / Flickr]