This is a subject that has been on my mind for some time, a defense of the Spanish language. Over time I’ve noticed attacks from two very, very separate quarters. With only a few days left until Cinco De Mayo, I figured now is as good as time as any.
The first is the most obvious. Spanish is widely derided and disliked from the faction of the conservative movement that practices Anglo Protestant identity politics. While they’re not doing this, they’re busy sowing white resentment, blaming Hispanics (read: Mexicans) for every ill under the sun. They’re the kind of people who resent seeing Mexican-Americans or hearing Spanish in public.
This form of Hispanophobia is really predictable but also deeply unconservative. It promotes a monocultural, Anglo United States at the expense of the conservative principles of tradition and localism.
These sectaries forget that Spanish is a part of the cultural fabric of the United States, as old as the Anglo-American tradition. While the culture of the United States is clearly of an Anglo-European and Protestant stamp, Spanish was being spoken in America before the Pilgrims landed or Pocahontas saved John Smith. The first European born in the United States was Spanish (sorry Virginia Dare), New Mexico was settled nine years before Jamestown and St. Augustine was founded half a century before the Mayflower landed. By the time the Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe was signed, ceding the Southwest, Spanish speakers had been living in the United States for two hundred and fifty years.
Walt Whitman recognized the value of this tradition;
We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources. Thus far, impress’d by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake. Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock. As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess. Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reach’d that excess. To-day, something outside of them, and to counterbalance them, is seriously needed.
To that composite American identity of the future, Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts. No stock shows a grander historic retrospect—grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor. As to the Spanish stock of our Southwest, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action?
This particular Hispanophobic movement wouldn’t just tear down a tradition that’s existed for nearly half a millennia but would ignores the conservative value of localism. The American Southwest is different from the Midwest, like New England is different from the American South. Rooting out what makes these regions unique doesn’t retain or restore American culture. It won’t make America great again. It will only diminish her. America without Spanish isn’t America as she developed, grew and matured. An America without Spanish would be a lesser one than she was before.
The second, softer form of Hispanophobia is a recurring sentiment from a few quarters in the Latino Left. While this form of Hispanophobia isn’t likely to gain political power (for instance, they probably won’t elect a president), it is, in my opinion, also insidious as it comes from within. It’s not always overt but it inevitably pops up when (English speaking) American Latinos discuss issues of identity.
For instance mitú asks, “Is there really integrity in a language forced on people by colonizers?” At the “What Does ‘Hispanic’ Look Like” discussion on the Latino Rebels podcast, they lament how older folks identify as Hispanic because it invokes Spain. Then there are the Mexica Movement dolts, angrily
reminding insisting to everyone they are not Hispanic.
The logic of these modern day purveyors of the Leyenda Negra is quite simple: Spanish (or anything related to Spanish identity) is suspect because the Spanish colonized the Americas. Colonization is one of the many mortal sins in the religion of our new woke overlords.
The problem with this particular strain of delusion is that it ignores the actual linguistic history of Iberoamerica. Zhenja La Rosa points out that while the Spanish had a vision of a monolingual New Spain, the actual strategy of imperialism relied often on using indigenous languages and keeping Spanish out of native hands. In fact the Spanish language often became a critical tool of unity between disparate indigenous groups.
If we applied the same standards to various indigenous languages, we wouldn’t have much of a linguistic heritage left at all. La Rosa reminds us that, “Nahuatl (or Nahua), maya, quechua and aymara, linguae francas shared by many diverse towns and tribes, [were] imposed by hegemonic forms and political and cultural expansion towards the formation of large empires.”
In fact the Mexica-Aztec dominance over other natives is often over looked. The Nahuatl speakers began to displace other tribes in central Mexico by the 1200s, finally rising to their zenith in 1519. In fact the symbol of their conquest of the Valley of Mexico (named for the Mexica tribe) today is the national coat of arms. But it didn’t end there. Nahuatl speakers became critical to the Spanish military effort to conquer what would Mexico. Historian John P. Schmal notes,
Philip Wayne Powell, in Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War, explained that many of the Náhuatl-speaking people from central México played an integral part in the settlement of central and northern México. According to Dr. Powell, “Indians formed the bulk of the fighting forces against the” the hostile indigenous groups in other parts of México. As a matter of fact, Dr. Powell explained that “as fighters, as burden bearers, as interpreters, as scouts, as emissaries, the pacified natives of New Spain played significant and often indispensable roles in subjugating and civilizing the Chichimeca country” of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes Jalisco and Guanajuato.
By the middle of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztecs, Cholultecans, Tlaxcalans and other linguistic groups had all joined forces with the Spanish military and developed “considerable experience in warfare alongside the Spaniards.” Without the use of Náhuatl interpreters and intermediaries, communication and mediation with hostile Indians would have been impossible.
The employment of Mexicans and Tlaxcalans for the purpose of “defensive colonization” also encouraged a gradual assimilation of many indigenous groups. As a result of this military and social dependence, the Náhuatl language received a renewed status as México’s lingua franca, and was crucial in assisting the Spaniards in their conquest and settlement of many parts of México.
Uh oh. Better take down that glowing profile of Nahuatl classes in Orange County, California (in fact as someone of Yaqui descent, I insist upon it!).
Through the process of mestizaje, the peoples of Latin America are overwhelmingly new creations; a mixture. A critical ingredient to this cultural mix is the Spanish language, without which there could be no shared Latino/Hispanic identity and no common medium of communication. Like their white nationalist counterparts above, what these Latino Know Nothings forget is by denigrating Spanish they inevitably demean themselves.
For various & sundry related to the topic;
- “Why did the Aztecs Convert to Catholicism, Following the Conquest of the Spaniards in 1521,” Alexia Dovas, Lambda Alpa Journal, 2007.
- “The Aztecs are alive & well: The Nahuatl Language in Mexico,” by John P. Schmal
- “The Rise of the Aztec Empire,” by ibid.
- “Mapping Hispanism,” by Mabel Moraña in Ideologies of Hispanism by edited by Mabel Moraña .
- La Raza Cosmica by Jose Vasconelos.