Last week, Senator Marco Rubio gave the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in Spanish as well as English, the first spokesman for an opposition party to do so. (In the past, the Spanish response was delivered by a specially designated speaker.) Is this a milestone worth pondering? Correct thought on both Right and Left would say: “Absolutely not; it is bigoted even to mention the growing reach of Spanish, a phenomenon which should be of no concern to anyone.” (The English-speaking audience was likely unaware of Rubio’s Spanish speech, which he had prerecorded and which ran simultaneously on Spanish-language networks. It might have been interesting to see the reaction had he delivered the two versions live and in sequence on the major networks.)
Elite indifference to the spread of Spanish may well be justified, but it would be useful if its rationale were fully articulated. It’s not hard to guess why the Left would celebrate Spanish’s increasing prevalence: it dovetails with the project of replacing a common American culture with multiculturalism. It’s much less obvious why some conservatives apparently believe that we should be serene about the matter. Two conceivable justifications come to mind—though neither is persuasive.
First, they might say, the use of Spanish in the public realm is just a temporary phase that will wane as assimilation marches inevitably forward. It would be nice to see some hints that this is happening. Instead, the trend appears to be overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. Daily experience suggests that the following phenomena are only increasing: “oprima numero dos” options in customer-service calls; Spanish signage in transportation hubs; Spanish packaging on consumer items; billboards and subway posters in Spanish; Spanish-language versions of newspapers; and Spanish-language affiliates of cable networks. Does anyone think that in the future fewer politicians will deliver their remarks in Spanish? The ability to speak Spanish is a “major advantage” for “potential presidential rivals in 2016,” observes the National Journal.
Bilingual candidates will continue to be given a leg up on the political ladder, and non–Spanish speakers, like New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, will desperately seek to master at least a few wooden phrases to demonstrate their empathy. “A politician who can communicate his or her message on Spanish-language television to the fastest-growing minority in this country is increasingly powerful,” Democratic consultant Maria Cardona told the National Journal. “You cannot overstate the power of the emotional connection that is triggered when you hear your own language.” Republican operatives agree: “When you speak to someone in their native language, you are telling them we’re part of the same community,” echoed Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. Arguably, the message is just the opposite: instead of telling them “we’re part of the same community,” you’re telling them that we don’t expect you to communicate in or understand English, which is not your “own” language, in Cardona’s words.
Understanding English is supposedly a precondition for gaining U.S. citizenship. Why, then, is it even necessary for politicians to address voters in Spanish? Either their English skills are not what we have been led to believe, or they simply prefer to use Spanish. Neither possibility is reassuring.
There appears to be no similar stampede of candidates, including Hispanic politicians, beating down the doors of Chinese or Korean Berlitz schools to communicate better with their Asian constituents. The assumption is: Asians and other immigrants will learn English; Hispanics, on the other hand, need to be reached in Spanish. The relative size of the various populations is no excuse: if using someone’s native or legacy language is appropriate and respectful for one language group, why shouldn’t the practice extend to all groups?
Politicians are not the only public officials under pressure to communicate in Spanish, of course. Cops in Santa Ana, California, and Los Angeles report that residents feel entitled to be spoken to in Spanish. The same applies on the other coast. “I have more confidence in their police when they’re speaking Spanish,” a bakery owner in East Haven told the New York Times in January. (Note the use of “their” in “their police.”)
Pro-amnesty conservatives regularly assert that assimilation is proceeding wonderfully, because most second- and third-generation Hispanics allegedly understand English. Is Spanish spreading, then, because the arrival of even more immigrants speaking only Spanish overwhelms this progress, or because Hispanic-Americans themselves prefer Spanish? Again, neither possibility is reassuring. Week after week, the ten most-watched TV shows among Hispanic-Americans are Spanish-language telenovelas on Univision. Univision aims—realistically—to become the top-rated network among 18- to 49-year-olds in a few years; it already regularly logs the most viewers among the 18-to-34 demographic. Even during Super Bowl week this year, when Americans overall, including blacks, gorged on Super Bowl coverage, Hispanic-Americans were still glued to Amores Verdaderos (True Loves).
Open-borders conservatives might cite a second justification for their nonchalance: Yes, the country is becoming bilingual, but so what? Again, such a position well may be right, but one would like to hear the argument. Language is inextricably linked to culture. If politicians felt compelled to speak Arabic to reach Muslims living in the U.S., or if every consumer phone call triggered an Arabic prompt, would conservatives be so sanguine about assimilation? Without question, Americans should learn more foreign languages. But it should not be necessary to do so to communicate with their fellow Americans.
The federal government’s impending immigration-reform plan will legalize an estimated 11 million illegal aliens already in the country. Mexicans account for 58 percent of the illegal population; unauthorized immigrants from the rest of South America (mostly Central America) make up another 23 percent, for a total of well over 9 million Spanish-speaking newly legal residents, who will in turn eventually be able to bring in their spouses, children, siblings, and parents, if those family members are not already here. Half of all illegal aliens have not completed high school; one-third have less than a ninth-grade education, according to Peter Skerry, writing in National Affairs. Twenty-two percent of all U.S. residents without a high school degree are illegal residents. This is not a population we can be confident will quickly adopt English or get ahead economically, though we can be sure that they will swell Democratic ranks: “Poor, working-class immigrants . . . turned out to be very reliable voters for us,” the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor recently told the New York Times.
Victor Davis Hanson writes powerfully about how California has become “Mexifornia.” There is no reason to think that such a trend will stop at the state’s borders. To the contrary, California offers a window onto the future. Governor Jerry Brown announced earlier this year a plan to redistribute state funding from middle-class schools to those with high proportions of “English learners,” a designation that frequently applies to students who have lived here all their lives but whose academic abilities are so low that they continue to be categorized as non-native speakers into their high school years. The challenge of educating this population is an enormous drain on the state’s coffers, as it is elsewhere. (Tucson has spent an estimated $1 billion trying to improve the performance of Hispanic-American students under a desegregation decree originally targeted at blacks; Hispanics’ high rate of disciplinary and academic problems prompted the creation of Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American studies curriculum.)
Conservatives have traditionally stressed the unum rather than the pluribus in our national motto (which originally referred to the unification of the states into a single nation, not to our contemporary notion of “diversity”). If the reality on the ground looks more and more like “E pluribus duo,” shouldn’t we care?