Weaving Spanish into the fabric of America
March 6, 2005


Where the issue of language is concerned, the United States can be a wonderfully complicated place full of paradoxes.

For instance, Americans are always complaining that Latinos especially immigrants defiantly resist learning English. Many English speakers are clearly annoyed by things such as bilingual ballots and bilingual education, Spanish-language billboards and recorded phone messages that ask you to press "1 for English" and "2 for Spanish." A lot of these people don't even seem to understand why they're upset. Judging from what I've heard over the years, they assume that the reason Spanish is becoming so prevalent in America today is because a bunch of Latino activists applied some muscle and demanded that everything be translated.

OK, first, most of the Latino activists I know have no such muscle. The truth is, it wasn't picket signs or raised fists that brought about a proliferation of Spanish, especially in advertising and marketing. It was the allure of the nearly $1 trillion that Latinos spend each year.

But here's the paradox: In their own lives, as they go about shaping their own cultural diets, a growing number of Americans can't seem to get enough Spanish or for that matter, the whole Latin experience.

The latest example: this year's Academy Awards, in which the Oscar for best original song went to "Al Otro Lado del Rio" ("On the Other Side of the River"), the poignant ballad penned by Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler. Taken from the Spanish-language film "The Motorcycle Diaries," the song had already broken an important barrier by becoming the first Spanish-language song ever nominated in that category. Given that the song was performed by Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana, and that their performance was introduced by Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, there's no doubt that the show's producers were trying to add some Latin spice to the telecast.

We could have seen this coming. Recent audience surveys of those who watch soccer's World Cup have turned up something interesting: tens of thousands of English-speaking soccer fans are opting to watch the tournament on Spanish-language television, perhaps because the broadcasts are more colorful. As more parents decide to expose their children to Spanish, those schools that offer two-way bilingual programs where students speak English part of the day and Spanish the rest find themselves with waiting lists. Go to the concert of any successful Mexican recording artist, someone like Luis Miguel, and you're likely to see white kids in the stands mouthing the words to some of the songs. There are Spanish words in English-language dictionaries, and, in the years to come, there are sure to be more. And some members of Congress are taking Spanish lessons to help them woo Latino constituents.

It's all part of what amounts to a seismic shift in the whole concept of a public language. It's been almost 25 years since Mexican-American essayist Richard Rodriguez in his first book, "Hunger of Memory" used that terminology to describe a childhood where English was the public language and Spanish the private one. That was my parents' experience, and my own. Now things will be very different for my children.

Spanish has become a public language. Suddenly, it's not unusual to find a Spanish-language television commercial on English-language television, a trend that Proctor & Gamble helped start a couple of years ago by airing a Spanish-language spot for toothpaste during an English-language broadcast of the Latin Grammys.

When Drexler won his Oscar, he used the 30 seconds he had been given for his acceptance speech to sing a few lines from the song in Spanish. As I watched, it occurred to me that the transformation of the language was complete. It is now firmly ensconced in the mainstream.

In fact, that's the irony. Those who gripe about too much Spanish say they're concerned that Latinos will use the language to segregate themselves. It's exactly the opposite. The more people speak Spanish, the more Spanish becomes part of the American fabric.

I once heard someone say that we were going to reach a point in this country where Mexican food would be as ingrained in American culture as Italian food or Chinese food. The cuisine wouldn't even be thought of as particularly exotic anymore. And that's what happened.

Now the same thing is happening with the Spanish language. Ten years from now, it'll just be seen as part of the American story, patched together as it is with the life experiences of hundreds of millions of people who came here from somewhere else and left their fingerprints.

That part isn't so complicated.

 Navarrette can be reached via e-mail at ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com