This post has been brewing for some time. It’s about me and my relation to the Spanish-speaking world, and it’s also about the United States and its response to the Spanish-speaking world. It’s about my memories of living in Spain, learning and speaking Spanish, visiting countries in central America. It’s about how I see the increasing Hispanicizing of the USA, where I now live. And it’s about how I respond to the way a solid minority of white Americans perceives that shift in the culture.
|Romario scoring against Real Madrid, 1994. God, he was good.|
Let me start on the treadmill at the gym, some time in early June this year. The NPR channel I was listening to on my audio device wasn’t working properly, so I randomly moved the dial along and landed on a Chicago Spanish-language station. It only took a few seconds for me to remember a time when I was surrounded by these sounds all day. Living in Barcelona, the longest stretch of time I was in Spain, and watching some Spanish TV in the morning before going to my studio, stepping out onto the square and walking to the Urquinaona subway stop, buying a copy of El Periodico to read on the journey, underling the words in the paper that I didn’t understand to look them up later, going to the bar next to the studio building several times a day and talking to the owner about FC Barcelona, mainly (they were on a good run that year, back in the 90s, making it to the Champions League final), going out in the evening to a party where I might be the only non-Catalan, trying to keep up with the flow of the conversation, missing many of the jokes, but generally staying with it, until I had too many beers or it got too late, and then the tired brain just kind of switched off. But at the end of my year there, my Spanish got really pretty good. Not the best accent (I’ve never, sad to say, been able to trill the ‘r’, just genetically not been given the gift), but good enough that at least people didn’t automatically mark me down as an English person (one of the worst accents, I was told, to Spanish ears). A lot of people say that they end up dreaming in a foreign language, which may be true, but which I suspect is just a way of boasting or exaggerating their linguistic prowess. I remember having a couple of dreams in which I was speaking Spanish, but the mark of the progress I made came in waking life, when over the course of one year I did the following things entirely in Spanish: going to a rental agency at the start of the year to look for an apartment; going to Telefonica to arrange for a phone to be installed in the apartment; calling Telefonica to send an engineer over when the modem for my girlfriend’s computer stopped working (that was a hard one); talking to landlords on behalf of some of my fellow students who didn’t speak any Spanish; arranging for a brochure of student work to be printed at the end of the year; meeting the manager of a nearby bank to set up an account; talking to the doctors and x-ray technicians at a hospital when my then-girlfriend had a medical emergency, and acting as translator between a frightened Dutch girl and some very patient Catalan doctors and nurses; and many parties, café and restaurant meals, train and bus journeys, supermarket transactions, and so on.
At the gym, when I heard the Spanish voices on the radio (actually Mexican-origin, I think, judging by some of the elongated vowel sounds), I thought of how much Spanish I used to know, and how much I had forgotten. The broadcast seemed to consist of a male speaker talking to a roomful of older men and women (who responded with laughter and the occasional interjection), and recounting a long anecdote about the typical quinceanera, and the kinds of classic expectations and mishaps that can occur, and the difference in attitudes between the younger and the older generations. I understood that much, and not a lot more, but far from being frustrated, it just brought back good memories of the things I mentioned earlier. I was only glimpsing a few trees, as it were, when previously I had a much larger view of the entire forest, but for me it was a comforting feeling to be suddenly surrounded by the sounds of Spanish again, to hear the rise and fall of the voices, to hear the warmth and playfulness of the speakers, the love of playing with language and making puns (yes, my Anglo friends, Spanish-Latino speakers are just as punny as us, if not more so), the laughter, the speed.
|I went into this hole in the ground hundreds of times.|
|There's a place like this just around the corner from me, actually.|
And I thought about when I first moved to Chicago, and how much Spanish there was in the city. Restaurants and restaurant workers, yes, but ads on the side of buses on Michigan Avenue, billboard ads on the expressways, and then the entire neighbourhoods of businesses with Spanish words everywhere. I thought about how the demographics of the USA are changing, have changed gradually over the last twenty years, but how all of the society is now suddenly aware that the USA will be a majority Latino country some time this century. And that Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, was the Numero Uno network for the first time this month.
I see all this, and I think: so what? Of all countries in the world, the United States as a whole cannot possibly have a problem with one group of people supplanting another. Which if course is not exactly what will happen, because Latino is just a fictional shorthand for many different groups of people, who happen to speak a common language. Two common languages, actually – Spanish and English. Besides, the majority-minority thing is a distraction, a way of changing the topic and making it about fear of The Other, rather than acknowledging that this society, and every society, consists of lots of different ‘groups’ rubbing shoulders with each other and attempting to co-exist with each other’s differences and competing interests. It pains me when I hear the terrible things that certain people and politicians say in response to these trends, and facts. I am tempted to go off on a long rant about that, but instead I will just say two things:
a) If this is really inevitable, then a racist response to it will in the end only hasten the demise of any political party that employs that vocabulary (I'm talking about you, Rep. Steve King of Iowa);
b) Learn to speak some Spanish! You will find that it’s actually a rather beautiful language. And if you never start dreaming in Spanish, at least you can avoid the nightmares that currently seem to cause you so much unrest.
|Buen consejo para todo el mundo.|