Noble: We are a country of immigrants, so why are we afraid to embrace Spanish speakers? (column)
It was not for lack of effort. I have my bucket of English and another bucket of every other language I have attempted to learn: Spanish, German and Mandarin all sloshing around in an unhelpful stew. Living overseas, I appreciated the necessity, as well as the difficulty, of attempting to learn another language. I empathize with immigrants hesitant to converse with native speakers. You never know if your rudimentary language skills are going to be met with encouragement or derision.
When I lived and traveled with my family overseas, we spoke English. Never once in 20 years of living overseas did I have someone in a non-English speaking country rebuke me for speaking English in public.
Here in America, however, some folks are losing their minds over people speaking another language. A viral video from May featured New York attorney Aaron Schlossberg raging because some patrons were conversing in Spanish with restaurant employees. To be clear, the employees could speak English and were not speaking to everyone in Spanish. The employees were responding in Spanish to customers who spoke to them in Spanish.
Meanwhile, in Montana, a Border Patrol agent overheard two women, both U.S. citizens, speaking Spanish and detained them because he found their multilingual ability suspicious.
And now this: On Monday, Oct. 1, in Rifle, Linda Dwire was caught on video harassing two women in a store who were speaking Spanish. Kamira Trent was having none of this; she intervened and called the police. Dwire was arrested on charges of bias-motivated harassment but not before ominously predicting, “You will lose your country.”
A Border Patrol agent, a New York lawyer and a grocery store shopper are easily dismissed as occasional and inconvenient bigots. However, might the everyday bigots of America derive encouragement from statements such as White House chief of staff John Kelly’s, when speaking about immigrants from south of the border: “They’re overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from — fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English — obviously that’s a big thing, they don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”
His comments were amplified by right-wing commentators such as Tomi Lahren, who said on the Fox News program WattersWorld, “You don’t just come into this country with low skills, low education, not understanding the language …”
Kelly’s observations are not rooted in fact, nor are they cognizant of the historical record, including Kelly’s own family history of assimilation.
According to “The Integration of Immigrants into American Society,” a consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, “… On most quantitative metrics — rate of English-language acquisition, penchant to commit crime and the like — Latino immigrants are as successful, if not more, than previous waves of immigrants.”
Kelly’s boss, President Donald Trump, infamously kicked off his presidential campaign verbally kicking Mexicans: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It is not a stretch to conclude that inaccurate but highly derogatory statements such as these encourage intolerance and prejudice.
Is there any validity to the assertion that our values and country are threatened in some way by this influx of immigrants speaking another language? Relax, folks, it is something we have seen before.
Many white Americans derive a good portion of their DNA from Germany, due to the large influx of Germans into America in the 19th century. Contrary to current assertions, these Germans did not immediately integrate. In fact, they celebrated their culture and maintained their language. In 1890, there were more than 1,000 German-language newspapers in America. Today, only a handful remains, such as Hiwwe wie Driwwe, the last remaining German newspaper in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to those German immigrants, some of their culture became our culture. We send our kids to kindergarten, have innumerable fests, fly on Boeing aircraft, wear Levis and appreciate the dulcet sounds of Steinway pianos. Like Christmas trees? Thank a German.
Was our nation changed by the influx of German immigrants? Yes. Will the current influx of Latino immigrants change us again. Yes. That is the beauty of America — we continuously reinvent ourselves.
Claire Noble can be found online at clairenoble.org and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.