References to Spanish in the US tend to evoke memories of Latinos’ racist oppression. However, there was a time in the early days of this country when Spanish was regarded by important whites as a “respectable” language.
Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wrote about the importance of Spanish to the US. In a document he penned outlining his ideas about the education of youth in Pennsylvania, Franklin recommended that young men interested in business should consider the study of Spanish!.
Jefferson’s admiration for Spanish is evident in this passage: “With respect to modern languages . . . Spanish is most important to an American . . .” One scholars notes, “His interest in Spanish was instrumental in its incorporation into the curriculum of William and Mary in 1780″ (Madeline Wallis Nichols)
Franklin’s and Jefferson’s positive view was shared by other members of the elite then. For example, a Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, found in Spanish an important tool to spread the “Christian” message to Spanish-American Catholics. In 1699 Mather wrote a pamphlet in Spanish, La fe del Christiano, hoping to convert them “from Darkness to Light,” that is, from the Catholic faith to Protestantism.
There was an early demand for private instruction in Spanish. In 1747 the New York Gazette announced the establishment of an Academy where Augustus Vaughn taught several languages, including Spanish, “correctly and expeditiously.” In 1773 another New Yorker, Anthony Fiva, advertised instruction in Romance languages, including Spanish, “in their greatest purity.” (Seybolt).
Instruction in Spanish began at the college level in the 18th Century. It was offered at major colleges and universities such as Pennsylvania (1750), Dickinson (1814) , Yale (1826), Princeton (1830) and Amherst (1827). However, the great prestige of Spanish instruction at the university level did not reach its peak until 1816 with the establishment of the Smith Professorship of the French and Spanish Languages and Literature at Harvard (Spell).
As US expansionism grew, however, the esteemed status of Spanish turned into contempt as white settlers moved to Texas and the US seized Mexican territory after the conclusion of the US-Mexican war. Conquering whites made the squelching of Spanish a central component of their takeover. Their strategy was familiar in history: to break a people, you dispossess them of such an important part of their lives as language. Their justification was simple: the language of an inferior race was necessarily an inferior language. Thus began the racialization of Spanish in the US.