We have become aware of two recent incidents involving Spanish speakers in the U.S. The first event happened in New York; a lawyer became infuriated because he heard restaurant employees speaking Spanish and threatened to call Immigration Services (the video went viral almost immediately). The second event occurred in the city of Havre, Montana, 50 kilometers from the Canadian border, where the borderland patrol guard detained two U.S. citizens who were speaking Spanish simply because it was considered “unusual.” Sadly, these are not the only cases registered in recent years.
If you think this is a new “trend,” you are seriously mistaken. History is full of events similar to these. Let’s take a look at some American history. In May, 1918 Iowa passed a law which prohibited speaking in any language other than English. It was soon abolished but it reflected a feeling that persists even today in the U.S. and which, in the opinion of many, is reflected in the recent cases we saw in New York and Montana.
William L. Harding, the governor at that time, signed what was called the Babel Proclamation letter, which prohibited the public use of any foreign language, including in schools, churches, trains and even by telephone. The ban was particularly aimed at German, “the language of the enemy,” according to the letter, in reference to the confrontation that the U.S. maintained against Germany at the time during World War I. It also reached Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants who inhabited the state, simply because they sounded like Germans and the state government wanted to prevent any kind of espionage activities. And all this a bit over one century past the era of the Muhlenberg controversy, when rumor has it that German was only one small step away from being considered the official language, at least of the State of Pennsylvania.
In any case, and due to protests considering that this measure violated the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution, the ban was annulled two years later. But feelings against foreign languages seem to have persisted, and today, they continue to manifest as exemplified above.
Let’s keep in mind that, at the federal level, English is not really the “official” language of the United States; in fact, it is regarded by a Senate amendment vote from back in 2006 simply as the “unifying language of the U.S.” This is a country where more than 350 languages are spoken and which has more Spanish speakers than even Spain, Peru or Venezuela. More than 40 million native Spanish speakers live in the U.S. today, and about 11 million more are bilingual Americans. So with these increasing numbers, you can see how someone who doesn’t speak the language might feel threatened. This is an issue that doesn’t seem to have a peaceful and rapid resolution, especially with the current administration highlighting how great “English America” is (I didn’t want to, but it had to be said).
Acceptance takes time, and as we can see with any other historical struggle, victory is for the righteous. So let’s be patient mis amigos, let’s continue showing our culture and language to the world, being respectful of others of course, and if the going gets tough, we can always sing along to Molotov’s Frijolero and get some of the frustration out.