Wissot: Spanish is spoken here, there and everywhere | VailDaily.com

Wissot: Spanish is spoken here, there and everywhere

I was waiting for my winter tires to be put on my car in a Discount Tire outlet in Denver.

The top line on the sign in the waiting room read “Conozca Sus Medias.” I, of course, had no idea what it meant because I am a monolingual native speaker of English, as are most Americans.

We represent the primary language spoken in this country, but not the only language of importance. More Americans speak Spanish, more than 43 million to be precise, than do Spaniards in Spain. In New Mexico, 48 percent of respondents to the 2020 census identify ancestry linked to Latin America and other Spanish-speaking areas and the state has a bilingual constitution; Texas and California have the next highest share about 39 percent; here in Colorado, the figure is 21 percent.

The Spanish language is on display everywhere we go, and with everything we do. While shopping at a Walmart in Glenwood Springs, I noticed that the word leche appeared right below milk in the food aisle. On closer inspection, I realized that every grocery item received bilingual attention.

When is the last time you called an office and weren’t given a choice as to whether you wanted to continue in English or Spanish? At a Coors Field baseball game last September, the massive centerfield scoreboard revealed it was Los Rockies night. When I go to the Denver Art Museum, exhibits always feature written explanations of the art I am viewing in both languages.

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Spanish isn’t the only language other than English, of course, spoken in this country. Travel to the bayous of Louisiana and you will hear people carrying on conversations in Cajun, the language adopted by the French Canadians from Acadia (now Nova Scotia) who settled the region in the 18th century. If you take a trip to the islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, the Gullah language of emancipated former Black slaves is frequently heard. Its origins date back to West Africa and the slave trade which brought them here.

But neither of these two regional languages, nor the German, Norwegian, Swedish and Italian, spoken by 19th century European immigrants, create the controversy associated with the expansive role Spanish is playing in our nation now. The last 70 years has seen a dramatic rise in the number of immigrants entering this country from Mexico, the Caribbean, and throughout Central and South America. It is their visibility along with the ubiquity of the Spanish language associated with them that has some Americans worried about a diminished role for themselves and the English language in the foreseeable future.

Miami is a good case in point. More than 60 years after the first exiles from Fidel Castro’s Cuba made their exodus to South Florida, 67% of the city’s residents speak Spanish. But Miami isn’t alone in being a place where Spanish is dominant. Would you be surprised to learn that relatively small cities in the Midwest like Liberal and Dodge City, Kansas have the same percentage of Spanish speaking residents as Miami? I certainly was.

Here, like elsewhere, context is important. 78% of Americans are like me fluent in only English. In a population of 331 million that means 258 million people or more than six times the country’s 43 million Spanish speakers. English isn’t about to be usurped by Spanish as the country’s primary language. But because the aggregate spending power of Hispanic households was estimated to be 978 billion dollars in 2021, corporations eagerly pitch their products and services to them in Spanish. Put more simply, we are and will continue to be a bilingual nation because the economic interests of the country require us to be.

The rise of bilingualism is viewed with alarm by white nativists. Wasn’t English, they claim, enshrined by the founders in the constitution as the official language of America? Sorry to disappoint, it wasn’t. No language including English was given preferential status or even mentioned in that document.

Thirty years ago, California tried to pass a law making English the official language of the state.

The late great Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, a highly educated man perfectly comfortable in the two languages and cultures separated by a politically contentious border, wryly said at the time, that the desire to pass the law meant only one thing: “English was no longer the official language of the state of California.”

A closer look at our country’s history reveals that languages in addition to English were part of the earliest linguistic landscape. Before the French and Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were, of course, the first Americans, the original Americans, the only truly native Americans this country has ever known. How many white nativist blowhards speak Dakota? Apache? Navajo? Cherokee?

Among the Europeans who fought and eventually vanquished the many tribes occupying the land, English was not the only language to establish a firm foothold. As Chris Rock quipped in 1996 while reporting from the Republican National Convention for Comedy Central: “If it weren’t for the Spanish explorers, I wouldn’t be speaking to you from San Diego, I’d be coming to you from Gus Johnson.” Several thousand places in this country have names of French origin. Keep that in mind next time you travel to Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis.

I find it strange that proponents for the sacred status of English forget that it was the French-speaking Lafayette and the German-speaking Von Steuben, inspector general of the Continental Army, who helped us win the Revolutionary War. And lest we forget, it was the English speaking redcoats of King George III’s colonial occupation who we defeated in order to secure our freedom.

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