In elementary schools across the United States, children have been taught that post-indigenous America began with the arrival of the Mayflower. A simple and unbroken narrative beginning on the eastern seaboard followed by continued westward expansion has dominated. Yet this image of a purely Anglo-Saxon civilization erases centuries of Hispanic history that are equally—and in some places more—American.
This conception of history as defined by the presence of English settlers has erased the parallel and converging trajectories that are equally vital to understanding contemporary America. Just as Italian schools do not begin teaching history from the Italian unification of 1861 and Chinese schools do not teach a history with a start date of 1949, America’s conception of its own history ought to be broadened.
Before the arrival of English and Spanish colonists—along with a few French and Dutch—there were the Native Americans. From the Wabanaki of Maine to the Kumeyaay of Southern California, Native Americans were the first victims of linguistic marginalization through a policy of English language domination. Forced assimilation, family separation and punishment for speaking native languages have resulted in their reduced usage. These languages were occasionally embraced—for example, in the deployment of Navajo code talkers during the Second World War—but rarely for the benefit of Native Americans themselves.
As a result of the considerable linguistic diversity of North America compared to Europe in 1492, it was impossible for Native Americans to present a unified language front and, as a result, many Native American languages rapidly vanished under the immense pressure of forced displacement and the growing presence of English.
While these languages have a right to be heard in contemporary America, there is another language that is also integral to the United States: Spanish.
The United States is not an officially Anglophone country. It is an English-speaking country only by convention. The dominant presence of English is the result of both the crucial role played by British settlers and their descendants in founding the country but also of coercion, which is most effective when it is social, not legal. The continued stigmatization of Spanish is manifested in childhood bullying of Spanish speakers in the South and in adult harassment, such that of the New York lawyer who threatened to call immigration because he encountered staff speaking the language of Cervantes.
The irony of telling someone to go back to Mexico in a country that annexed half of Mexico is usually lost on those vocally denouncing the use of Spanish.
Conventionally understood as a recent import, the Spanish language is often viewed through the prism of immigration. Although Asians are now immigrating to the United States in greater numbers than Hispanics, this perception lingers. The stigmatization of Spanish speakers is often due to the belief that such speakers are likely to be illegal immigrants. Such hostility is nothing new: in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized operation wetback, which resulted in the deportation of up to 1.1 million Mexican nationals, due to growing domestic political antipathy towards Hispanic workers.
While Spanish has come to be spoken in the contemporary United States partly as the result of immigration, this is also a direct consequence of the conquest and settlement of Spanish and Mexican territories. Spanish Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, but the main encounters with Spanish speakers did not occur until after the fight for Texan independence and, later, the Mexican-American War.
The war was a result of President James Polk’s 1846 decision to deploy US forces to a disputed territory in order to provoke a Mexican response and thereby obtain a pretext for war. The consequence was the Mexican Cession, whereby Mexico ceded 55% of its territory and renounced its claims on Texas. Though the US military had successfully captured the capital Mexico City, it never sought to annex Mexico’s entire territory, in part due to a desire to exclude Spanish speakers from the United States. Pro-slavery senator and former vice president John C. Calhoun argued:
we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race … Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.
As Daniel Immerwahr has described in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, American expansion, unlike that of other imperial states, resulted in territorial enlargement with minimal numbers of additional people. Yet, despite the best efforts of Calhoun and his compatriots, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was unable to completely prevent Spanish-speaking people from becoming part of the United States. While Anglo settlers quickly established themselves as the elite in the new ceded territories, Spanish speakers, such as Romualdo Pacheco, the first Hispanic congressman and governor of California, and labor and civil rights activist César Chávez, have continued to play an active role in American politics.
One common feature of officially bilingual and multilingual states is the availability of key services—such as voting, driver certification, medical care and legal advice—in the nationally recognized languages. The right to such services is not legally predicated on knowledge of English in the US, yet in practice it often is. While some states, such as California, have taken active measures on some of these fronts, these basic rights should be guaranteed, no matter which state one lives in.
Nonetheless, for practical reasons, we might wish to prioritize resources in the areas where they will be of greatest use. In officially bilingual Finland, where Swedish speakers represent roughly 5% of the population, municipalities that meet certain demographic criteria can gain bilingual status. This ensures that facilities like schools can offer key services in both languages.
Spanish speakers are not the majority in any US state and form a majority in only one US territory: Puerto Rico. The US differs from countries like Belgium and Canada in that there are no clear geographical linguistic dividing lines. This offers the advantage that linguistic separatism of the kind many seek in Flanders and Quebec is not a real risk in the United States.
The area in which the United States has failed most spectacularly is in language teaching. Americans are notorious for being monolingual. While the number of foreign language speakers has nearly tripled since 1980—roughly one fifth of US residents now speak a foreign language—this is primarily the result of immigration: first and second generation immigrants represent the majority of the foreign language speakers. Only around 20% of K-12 students are learning a foreign language in school—which means that, if history is any guide, most later generation immigrants will soon forget their heritage languages.
These figures contrast sharply with those of countries that fully embrace foreign language learning, which is generally most effective when it begins before high school. In the European Union, most students learn two foreign languages: a shared goal commonly referred to as mother tongue plus two. Of course, such learning is not limited to the classroom. In Scandinavia, television programs are never dubbed but subtitled whereas, in the United States, English-based programming is inaccessible to Spanish speakers, while Spanish-language programming is inaccessible to the majority of Americans.
As long as Spanish is spoken in the United States—whether by native speakers or by those who learned it at school—the language will continue to preserve a centuries-old link to the foundations of the US. Most borders around the world lie along a language continuum, whereas the US–Mexico border is an artificially enforced cultural barrier. Let us acknowledge that the Hispanic origins of places like San Diego and San Antonio are just as integral to the American fabric as Jamestown and Charleston.