Is it dangerous to speak Spanish in public in Trump’s America? Well, sí! Just this month, we’ve seen a lawyer threaten to call ICE after he overheard people in a restaurant in Manhattan speak in Spanish, and a Border Patrol agent in Montana detain two Mexican-American women for 40 minutes because he heard the bilingual women chatting en español, because the language “is very unheard of up here,” according to la migra man.
But there are so many more examples! There was the Kentucky woman at a JC Penney in Louisville who screamed, “Go back to wherever the fuck you come from” to two Latinas. The Miami mujer who says she was kicked out of a UPS store for not speaking English. The New Jersey high school teacher who told her Latino students to “speak American.” My favorite incident still remains the Okie who railed at a Latina at a Goodwill that “on this side of the Red River, north of the Rio Grand, north of the Red River, we speak English and English only.”
Maybe he thought the lady was a Texas Longhorns fan?
Such open, ugly bigotry seems like the new normal for Latinos, and statistics are starting to back that up. An FBI report showed that hate crimes against Latinos rose 15 percent from 2015 to 2016, which just so happens to coincide with the rise of 45.
But the reality is that speaking Spanish in the United States has always been dangerous: In this age of social media, the rest of the country is just learning about what Latinos have had to deal with for generations.
Many Mexican-American baby boomers lost their Spanish language skills as children because their parents didn’t foster it out of fear of discrimination. And those fear were well-founded: Chicano memoirs are chockablock with horror tales of teachers washing the mouths of students with soap for daring to speak Spanish in class. And that wasn’t even the worst school abuse: Administrators would regularly classify Spanish-dominant children as “retarded” and place them in special-education courses, severely stunting their chances at success.
And yet Spanish in los Estados Unidos persisted. The United States already has the second-largest population of Spanish-speakers in the world, after Mexico — and if current trends continue, we’ll beat our south-of-the-border frenemies by 2050.
Latinos love la habla not just because it’s part of their culture, but because we know what conservatives refuse to accept: Spanish, not English, is the most all-American language of them all.
Just re-read your history books. Spaniards had already established vibrant colonies from St. Augustine to Santa Fe by the time the English set up Jamestown in 1607. Previous generations of Americans knew to learn at least some Spanish when they moved into what’s now the Southwest United States, when it was still part of Mexico. And the lingo of the most American icon of them all, the cowboy, is mucho mucho with Spanish roots, from buckaroo (from vaquero— cowboy) to vamoose (from “vamos”—let’s go) to that most red-blooded car of them all, the Mustang (from the Spanish word for stray animals).
And what language do you think the names of red states like Colorado, Florida, Montana and Nevada come from? Dothraki?
So why do some Americans keep freaking out about Latinos speaking Spanish? Part of it is anti-Latino sentiment, for sure. And our president has emboldened xenophobes like few presidents since Woodrow Wilson. But a better explanation is that it’s a reminder that our country has historically been fine with citizens speaking more than one language. The Continental Congress printed documents in German and French. German bilingual schools existed across the Midwest right up until World War II. And, like the song said, even Old New York was once New Amsterdam (where people spoke Dutch).
Now, with an increasingly diverse America, speaking Spanish is just going back to our roots — roots that modern-day Know-Nothings fear being left out of.
Thankfully, today’s internet culture quickly deems anyone who freaks out about someone speaking Spanish in public a pendejo. That jerk Manhattan lawyer? A crowd-funded mariachi not only played outside of his apartment, but the attorney also got booted from his office and eventually apologized. Same with the Jersey teacher. Good people are not only realizing that speaking a foreign language is okay, but that it’s not okay to be racist about it.
“Spanish is an American language,” concluded Princeton history professor Rosina Lozano in her recently released, excellent “An American Language: The History of Spanish in the United States.” “Not just because of its place in the Americas and the future of the nation, but also because of its pivotal role in the United States for over a century.”
So get with the program, racists, and learn Spanish. And for the record: when we speak Español, we’re not talking about you. We don’t even care about you.
Gustavo Arellano is the California columnist for the Los Angeles Times opinion section, and a lifelong resident of Orange County, California, where he’s reported on the craziest county on Earth for over 16 years.