Monday, February 4, 2013

No Problema: what Spanglish says about U.S. inter-culture dynamics

Regardless of your political attitudes on immigration, difference or assimilation, I know you know some Spanglish. Everyone does, and everyone throws in a Spanish word (or suffix) here and there; it seems to come naturally, at least for those who at least occasionally bump into Spanish speakers or live near Chicano neighborhoods.

Naturally--that's the key word here. Interestingly enough, language incorporation is a social phenomenon that almost seems biologically programmed--regardless of the prevailing anglocentrism and Spanish's low social status, (even when it is the majority language of a particular area), that darn idioma continually seeps into our American English dialect. It's simply the inevitable result of language contact, and as many English words make their way into Spanish vocabulary as do Spanish words into English.

So what does this mean, you ask? I am of the opinion that this linguistic exchange, albeit minor, is indicative, and anticipates, a larger shift in American attitudes toward Spanish-speakers (hispanophones). Spanish is slowly becoming more tolerated, as the proportion of hispanophones, and therefore exposure to the language, steadily increases. This, coupled with an increasingly global economy that demands more bilingual speakers in a variety of languages, is curbing the enthusiasm of monolingual proponents and leaving younger generations to ponder what opportunities exist in a diverse marketplace as a monolingual American.

I'll just be as frank as possible. This is where the piano hits the ground. This is going to happen. Sí, verdad. There is nothing anyone can do to keep back the rising tide of Spanish in American society--it has been estimated that perhaps by 2050 over half of the country will speak Spanish with some degree of fluency. That may be a bit exaggerated, but the fact is that it will happen sooner or later, and you crossing your arms and "putting your foot down" is not going to change a single thing. Nada.

This inevitability seems to distress some Americans, for reasons that I do understand. Proponents of English-only education and business in America believe that our common tongue has been a great national unifier and pillar of our socioeconomic success; business is easier when everyone understands each other effortlessly. I get that. Comprendo.

Yet I have to question the assumption that English is indeed our great unifier, as well as if "unity" is really what we need more of at all. I happen to think the United States are too unified, and are increasingly losing their distinctiveness--society has become increasingly mobile with the invention of the automobile and then the plane, then with television, and now the internet. Communication from coast to coast is instantaneous, freely and constantly circulating.

Language is a perfect representative of this homogenization; a certain dialect called "standard English" is almost universally preferred in media, which we now consume incessantly day in and day out. This, combined with easy mobility, has drastically reduced the number and size of localized dialects.

 I suspect that this homogenization of language both reinforces and indicates a weakening sense of place, of "situatedness", and a poor awareness of our federalist structure. Pop culture, being nationally, well, popular, is focused almost exclusively on federal issues and "national problems". Cable news is the same, no matter what state you are in, and I think that this increasingly non-specific national awareness is doing more harm than good. Honestly, I think the last thing America needs is to be more "unified".

That being said, I don't think Spanish in itself is going to rip the country apart or ruin our economy. Quite the contrary--although the transition from a mono to bilingual culture is painful, in the end our country will come out stronger for having increased its bilingual speakers. Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world.

Notice that I said Spanish in itself. In reality, I think the rejection of Spanish as a common American language is really a misappropriation of blame stemming from concern for a deeper cultural and political issue that I, too, share. It is the concern of Hispanic community exclusivity, which inoculates the members of the community against general American values and any sense of common patriotism, not to mention communication.

The fear is of "a nation within a nation," and it is very real, particularly for those in the Southwest. If Hispanic communities close themselves off from the rest of society, there will be no common ground to stand on, and thus antipathy and misunderstanding will perpetually fester in the rift between the Chicanos and the "real" Americans. If this indeed became a widespread phenomenon, I wouldn't be surprised if in a hundred years there would be an effort by Arizona or Southern California to secede from the Union and unite with Mexico. It's not actually all that crazy a speculation.

But as I said before, pushback against Spanish will not prevent this from happening; for many, I think it is merely the manifestation of the fear discussed above. I know what you're thinking--well then, señorita  knowitall, what's the solution?

I'll admit I have no fine-tuned theory to solve this problem, but I do think I can point out where the real problem lies--with advertising and marketing, and with non-citizen (or "undocumented", which is the p.c. term) status.

Let's start with the latter, because I think it's a bit more important than the former. Status as an undocumented worker means you are in a sort of liminal socioeconomic state, and each country holds a certain magnetic charge that attracts or repels you--the opportunity American offers attracts you, but that opportunity is not guaranteed for life. When it runs out, so does the attraction, and the attraction generated by lifelong experience as a Mexican (or Guatemalan, or Cuban, etc.) pulls you back home.

But what if you're fortunate enough to have a steady job? Or what if circumstances are bad here, but they're much worse in your motherland? You'll probably stay, but you're not staying because you want to  be an American, you stay because you want to maximize your benefits and minimize costs (not just financially, but in terms of safety, health, opportunity, etc.).

And you're human--you don't want to feel alone, so you are socially attracted to the relatives and friends already here, and other undocumented immigrants, and a Hispanic community naturally evolves. And for all intents and purposes, you're here to stay.

But what if there was a pathway to legal status? What if your only choice to remain in the U.S. is to become a legal resident, with a tax ID, a thumbprint scan, and name in the national database? It's a long process, for sure, and it's no piece of cake, but it's the best deal you have.

My theory is that the process of becoming a legalized resident (citizen or otherwise), of being confronted with the concept of actually becoming "an American", in all legal respects, will cause you to think about your place in American society, about what it might mean to "be an American" in the fullest sense of the word.

Suddenly police are no longer an extenuating threat. Employers can no longer take advantage of you. If are granted the opportunity to become a citizen, now you can vote. Sure, now you pay taxes...but at least you're entitled by law to Social Security and other government "perks."

The process of becoming legalized is actually a wealth-creating process, albeit indirectly--by undergoing this arduous process, an individual accumulates cultural capital. He acquires essential knowledge of the country, including that of laws and important history, often embedded in everyday language as "cultural texts" (an example would be "all men are created equal", "one nation under God", or a "lone gunman").
The somewhat parallel process of learning English is an investment of time and effort that produces invaluable socioeconomic capital, for obvious reasons, and is a veritable bulldozer to the social barriers built on the severe deficit of communication.

The individual who invests in and achieves a new identity (at least a reflexive one), whether national, religious, or ideological, is likely to produce more wealth for himself by continual investment of his capital; the more wealth he gains, the stronger his identity becomes as he builds a social network, a career, and maybe even a family in the larger context of American culture.

And so the process continues, and time is a steady investment, like an automatic payment or a Keep the Change program; the longer one stays in a particular place, the deeper his social roots and sentimental attachment, and so the less likely he is to leave it.

All this is to say that in order solve the issue of a "nation within a nation", our country must make an effort to legalize the immigrant population. A crackdown on the use of Spanish and bilingual preference will not work. Universal tolerance of Spanish will not work. Mass deportation will not work. A taller fence will not work. Not even sped up naturalization will work.

In our present American context, legalization is the only theory I have any credence in. Buena suerte, America.

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