Saturday, June 29, 2019

Cheap shots on Spanish

My guess is that almost all of the media voices belittling the Democratic candidates for speaking Spanish at the debates do not speak Spanish themselves.

Of real note are the particularly snarky comments about “Beto”.

For those of us who do speak Spanish, Beto told us something that almost all of the English language media missed. He speaks it well. Very well. Beto grew up in a part of our country where Spanish is a common language and he has obviously spoken it most of his life.

So, the college student on NBC’s coverage giving him advice on how a white person should approach speaking Spanish and the snide panelist on NPR have one thing in common:

They both were equating language with race.

But speaking a language is something we learn, we do, we participate in. Even our native language is a learned thing. There are many people who grew up in another nation and speak the languages of where they were raised because they are from that place and not the land of their passport or skin color.

Beto grew up along the Mexican border.

He is no different than the Anglos in Montreal who speak the language of the French majority (me), or the Mexicans on the other side of that border who speak English better than your average student because English is part of their day to day life.

Booker did OK and my first reaction hearing him was admiration. He had the guts to learn and more guts to risk his skill level to public exposure. He also told us that his idea of ethnic minorities included respect for Spanish speaking Americans. Mayor Pete was competent, as usual, and as a former soldier he might well know a lot of those Spanish speaking Americans who carry guns for our country.

My overall impression hearing those putting their Spanish out there was “not bad” and they all showed a good, honest and intelligent effort. I would not vote for any of them in the primary because my views are further to the left, but they have my respect for making the effort.

And the message of all this Spanish speaking to the Spanish speaking public was loud and clear:

The Hispanic minority is important in this election.

That is not a bad message. It did not deserve the denigration it brought on from pundits taking cheap shots. The “Taco Bell” comments or talking about Beto “trying to speak Spanish” are both mean spirited and uninformed, telling us much about what the commentators think of the politician they are running down while saying a lot about how people in this country feels about Spanish.

In the United States, Spanish is a repressed, undervalued language that is often associated with a patronizing and racist view of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and other brown skinned people. In the popular culture speaking French, German, Russian, Chinese and other languages is high class.

Speaking Spanish is treated as low class.

I find it revealing that people who do not speak another language themselves, make fun of other people for not speaking another language well.

Spanish is considered a crutch for those who do not speak English well enough in our schools, public services and politics. In many schools, Spanish is discouraged instead of being taken up to the next level of literacy. Spanish is what we use to talk (down) to those people, who are treated as second class Americans. Third class if they do not have work papers.

Spanish has been the language used to manage the hired help.

So Beto gets run down not because his Spanish is substandard, because it is not. He may have been the most skilled Spanish speaker on stage, including Secretary Castro. No, Beto gets run down because he is speaking Spanish and is white. The assumption that he does so poorly might have more to do with the miserable success level of American college students in achieving fluency.


Keep in mind that almost 100% of our media folk come from the less than one third of us who go to college.

My guess is that there is a higher percentage of bilingual English speakers working in construction and hospitably than there are holding commentator jobs at NBC. 

I have a lot of trouble with English speakers deciding that speaking Spanish in a national debate is pandering. Somehow all the other talk of minority rights, LGBTQ rights and so on is taking positions, but somehow, speaking Spanish is suspect. Were they afraid that Beto was talking about them behind their backs? With that NBC crew, they all could have. There was one Spanish speaking commentator and I was pleased to see him start off in Spanish with a couple of the candidates.

Just note something.
Why wasn’t there a voice over or subtitles to interpret as Spanish was used?
That is what would happen in a real bilingual nation.

But for NBC, Spanish was not important enough for them to be ready for it. Their only provision was to translate the debate from English to Spanish on Telemundo.

Secretary Castro closed speaking well, with a native accent. He let us know that he really speaks it. A lot of people with dark skin and the last name Castro speak no Spanish at all. They are from the United States and don’t speak Spanish any more than I speak Gaelic or my half-brother speaks the German that defines his mother’s accent.

Castro did well and I would have to hear more to know if he speaks household Spanish, the same way I once only spoke household English, or has the depth of day to day language use that comes from education, using it at work, using it for politics and having a deep contact with the culture, economy and daily life of active Spanish speakers. I am not sure how far that goes for Beto either. All the same, I admire Castro for speaking up and being positive about speaking his family’s language with the whole world watching. 

I am not sure I would trust my own English under such a spotlight.

And I am pleased that candidates for president of this nation had the courage to make talking directly to so many Americans with respect for them and their language a priority.

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