L.A. City Officials Learning Spanish

Today’s LA Times featured a story titled “Hablan español at City Hall.” In it, the reporter discusses the rise in Spanish language usage among City Hall officials. Not only is Spanish part of the regular public relations business of the city, but many city leaders are doing what they can to learn the language themselves.

This trend in Los Angeles politics is, first and foremost, democratic. As the article notes, “Nearly 40% of Los Angeles County residents older than age 5 speak Spanish at home.” Such figures suggest that there is a sizable population of residents for whom proper municipal representation and service entails communication in Spanish. No matter what you think of the political/cultural side of this issue, at heart, it is the right thing to do.

There are those who lament changes like these as examples of the cultural schism marking life in the 21st century U.S. For example, “English Only” advocates insist such trends are a threat to the nation and its cultural traditions. One of them, a man named K.C. McAlpin of ProEnglish, is quoted in the article. “What has worked for this country, and what has made it the most successful multi-ethnic country in the world, has been the melting-pot idea: That you can be a full participant in American citizenship by learning our national language and assimilating.”

Such viewpoints are often dismissed as “racist.” To be sure, they do have a racial component to them, but I wouldn’t be so quick as to suggest they are based on nothing other than hatred and fear. Such viewpoints emerge from a very particular (and largely unsupportable) analysis of the past. This perspective–which views the U.S. has having a mono-lingual past, framing a unified culture, and incorporating difference via an assimilationist model characterized by a “melting pot”–is as much based on a selective imagining of the present as anything else.

Early “Americans” did not see themselves as racially/culturally homogeneous. Many of the “Founding Fathers” believed one of the challenges of the early Republic lie in the lack of a homogeneous population. While you might see whites from England and whites from Scotland and whites from Germany as the same, they did not.

Over the first century of its history, the U.S. would become a nation with a growing number of immigrants who did not speak English. These immigrants would often find themselves discriminated against because of the language, and many in mainstream society portrayed them as clanish and unassimilable. Germans, for example, found themselves so widely persecuted in parts of the Midwest, that they up and moved (to places as diverse as Sinaloa, Mexico and the Oregon Territory).

Placed along side what we think and know of the present, what these examples of the past show is not the power of the melting pot, but rather the power of the “idea” of whiteness. Toni Morrison, in her 1993 article “On the Backs of Blacks,” reminds us of the myriad ways “Racist strategies unify.” The early to mid-twentieth century has been the story of how “white” grew to include some and not others. How some were allowed to “melt,” while others were seen as unable to do so.

Latinos are an in-between people. History will show that many of us are assimilating, effectively turning “us” into “them” in the span of a few generations. Many, also, are not. In both instances, I believe, it has little to do with conscious decision. Just as the segregated spaces in which people find themselves today are the hangover of centuries of formal and informal policies of exclusion and separation, so, too, the cultural fluidity we encounter is structured by the past.

Finally, if none of this moves you, you can keep your fears of a Spanish takeover in check by recognizing there is no takeover. The rise in Spanish language usage among L.A.’s city government is a reflection of the increase in the Spanish-language immigrant population of the county in the last 20 years. Those numbers have begun to decline already. Someday, they will rise again (sadly, as a result of economic changes more than anything else). In the meantime, the children of these immigrants will learn English, as many of these immigrants will themselves. Statistically, by the time many of the grandchildren come around, they won’t even be able to speak Spanish beyond the casual pleasantries.

The real issue is why.

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