Spanish in the US: Racialization (Part II)

Victorious intruders often justify their actions by playing up their self-defined probity vis-à-vis the supposed wickedness of their victims. White settlers in the 19th Century Southwest were no exception: they held an undisguised contempt for Mexican citizens residing in the region. Their attitude was couched in the language of race and they referred to Mexicans as “niggers” and mongrels.

One of the “racial” traits that “tainted” Mexicans was their language. In the aftermath of the 1848 Mexican-American War, the eradication of Spanish became an important goal of whites in power. They started early in a person’s life. To “divest” Mexican children of their racial baggage, the elimination of Spanish was pursued avidly in schools.

In 1929 some Mexican Americans in Corpus Christi, Texas, decided that to improve their lot they would succeed in areas in which they were supposedly deficient. To this end, they founded the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), restricting membership to US citizens and emphasizing English-language skills. Predictably, their efforts were insufficient to penetrate staunch racist barriers. : LULAC members and their mother language remained racialized.

The efforts to squelch Spanish extended well into the 20th Century. They included the portrayal of Spanish as an intruder in English’s linguistic realm. Harvard luminaries Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Huntington (2004) were among the proponents of this perspective. Schlesinger said unequivocally that “The language of the new nation [US] . . . [is] primarily derived from Britain.”

In a similar vein, the Huntington asserted that

America’s culture … is still primarily the culture of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century settlers who founded American society. The central elements of that culture … include . . . the English language.

There is overwhelming evidence that the “establishment” still favors the hegemony of English. However, white economic and political elites have been forced to relent in their “monoglot” policies, not so much as a gesture of sympathy toward Latinos but as a necessity for these elites to pursue Latino votes and markets.