Can't understand the headline? Not many people can these days. But that's okay, because I'll explain it in a bit. For now, just trust me that this is about politics and the English language.
You may have recently read about John Huppenthal, chief of public schools in Arizona. He's under fire for a number of things right now, among them his views on the Spanish language. "This is America, speak English," he says as he supports eliminating Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations, tv, and billboards. Even Mexican restaurants should bow to the almighty power of the English language:
"I don't mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English. And, I'm not being humorous or racist," he said.
Okay, dude. Not racist. Got it.
There's just one thing about it, though, John. Your positions walk like racist positions, quack like racist positions, fire people with accents like racist positions...
You know, I think you're just being racist with this whole English-only thing.
I mean, it's inherently racist to begin with, seeing as it's based in the fear that when white people are no longer the majority of the population some sort of white genocide will happen. And the only way to stop it is to prevent all of us minorities from speaking our secret and impenetrable foreign languages to each other.
But let me tell you a story. It's a story about language, and it's very personal to me.
My grandfather was born in Puerto Rico in the 1930s (just to be clear, John, Puerto Rico is not Mexico and the people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens who lack the right to vote for President). He spoke Spanish, but when he moved to the mainland in the 50s he learned English and stopped speaking Spanish at home, because that's what my grandfather's generation did.
In 1946 Mexican Americans won, in California, the right to be integrated into "American" schools rather than be segregated:
The state of California required separate schools for "Negro, Mongolian, and Indian children," but the judge ruled that Mexicans were white and found the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students to be unconstitutional and ordered that they be integrated into the "American" schools.
Whiteness was bestowed, and members of my grandfather's generation grew up with that. They assimilated into white American culture, stopped speaking Spanish, and raised their children speaking English. My grandfather did exactly that. My father, uncle, and aunts were raised without the Spanish language at all. I know my uncle and his wife, as well as one of my aunts can speak it, but they all use English as their primary language at home.
My father never learned Spanish, and as a result never taught me or my brother. And while it worked out well for my father and grandfather's generations to assimilated, I've grown up in a very different America. The America I've grown up in recognizes multilingualism as beneficial, that we don't all want to nor should we all have to assimilate to whiteness. Many in my generation of Latin@s reject whiteness.
I never got to meet my grandfather because he died when my father was a teenager. I would have asked him a number of questions about his choices when he came to the mainland. But even though my grandfather's generation was quick to abandon or curtail the use of Spanish, and my father's as well (either by choice or because of their parents' choices), we still get caught in a bind whether we speak Spanish or not: everybody assumes we do and that we aren't fluent in English.
When I was a kid my dad got stationed in Puerto Rico. There wasn't any real reason to it beyond these facts: there was an opening in my dad's new rank, the majority of people in Puerto Rico speak Spanish, and my dad's last name was Spanish (therefore he must speak Spanish). Turns out he doesn't. We lived there for two and a half years, and at the time I met a lot of my father's side of the family.
My great-grandparents didn't speak English, and I didn't speak any more Spanish than was necessary to say "Sí abuela" as she hugged me and said a whole bunch of things I could not understand. My great-aunts and great-uncles could speak English, but Spanish was their primary language. Part of what motivated me to learn Spanish was to be able to communicate with my family back in Puerto Rican and get the cultural education from them that I'd never be able to get from my assimilated father.
If we do speak Spanish, we're told to learn English. If we don't, we're treated as if we're somehow less Latin@ than our brothers and sisters who can, despite that being absurd.
The point of my story is that for at least this Latin@ person, Spanish is important. It's part of how I fight to regain my cultural difference from white American culture and part of how I honor my ethnic background. I'm sure for many who speak Spanish natively, it's part of holding onto their culture against demands trade it in for white culture like my grandfather's generation did.
So on the one level, I look at people like John Huppenthal and statements like those he's made and I feel the racism behind his statements very keenly. And then, on another level, I want to ask him a question.
So let's go for English only. But let's really go for English only. None of these veiled references to immigrants or the loss of white cultural power. No, if you're going to do English only, you're going to do it right, and that means getting to the purest English possible.
Swa. Ne spricaþ Englisc. Spricaþ doctungan – Englisc ne borgaþ word; Englisc smacaþ mid oþra tungan ond smittian hine mid hiera word. Ic recee frencisca fagnessa, lædenisca læðða, gresisca blegena, and wunda fram ealla þære worulde. Gif willaþ se wita ure rice to sprocan Englisc, we motaþ ascirian þa brosnung.
Turns out not many people can read that, let alone pronounce it (kind of like those who tend to take to the internet to support English-only - see picture at the beginning of this piece). But if you're going to propose English only, then you get Old English from me. Because not only am I Latin@, I will gleefully run circles around the English of English-only advocates.
Englisc, modorcunnere, þu spræcst hit?
(See the comments section for translations of the Old English - I'd like you to have a minute with it before you can get a cheat sheet)
Image Credit Public Shaming tumblr