Whenever I’m in a situation where I pick up that someone has a Spanish accent, I’ll switch to speaking Spanish. I also make the effort with French or Italian, though I’m not nearly as fluent. Speaking to somebody in their first language forges an instant connection that’s usually lovely and can make buying a cup of coffee a great story.
But I've noticed that the only time I’m ever questioned about my habit is when I speak Spanish. Apparently every other language - especially French - makes me look sophisticated as I’m asking for a coffee refill or ordering my croque monsieur. Speaking French gets you smiles; c'est magnifique! But if I switch to Spanish I will invariably get a side eye, like I’ve opened the door and let the savages in. A video that went viral a couple of weeks ago reminded me of this.
The clip shows a Southern California woman berating Norma Vasquez and her son Carlos for speaking Spanish amongst themselves at an IHOP. One — it was a private conversation between mother and son. Two — the name of the establishment is International House of Pancakes. And three — it’s in Koreatown. You’d think the diversity of the situation alone would make the rageful woman think twice before going off like a roman candle. But the irony of it was lost on her. She chose to tell this Salvadorean family to go back to Spain. Because you know, that’s the only place in the world Spanish should be spoken.
It would be easy enough to blame her outburst on the divisive seeds being planted by GOP presidency hopefuls, struggling to "out-patriot" others in the political race to the bottom. But 'the Donald' didn’t start this ugly, he just gave people a target and a licence to attack it.
Can you imagine Ms. Southern California doing this to a French family or a German one? Nein! But she had no qualms about doing this to a Latino family because every xenophobe has put our community in ‘Amerikuhs' crosshairs.
This lady decided to go historical, so I will too. Let’s look at why English is spoken in America. Let’s look at the pilgrims.
Pilgrims were thrown out of England. A fact that bears repeating — they were thrown out of England. The English don’t throw anything away — they tried to take half the world through colonization and settled for their art and artifacts when they failed. But with the Puritans they said, ‘Yeah, no…leave!’ They wanted their belief systems and influences an ocean away.
In the Americas, these little guys took root and their intolerance and confidence bloomed so much so, that not only did they disregard entire populations already living for centuries on this land, they decided to demonize every new wave of immigrant that landed on these shores. Their attitude was enslave, trick or ignore them (think Native Americans) and ONWARD!’
The lie that America is ‘white’ and should only speak English in order to be ‘great’ has been perpetuated ever since. It’s so ingrained in our national development that we’ve all accepted it as a default even though it’s a fabrication. Don’t believe me? Let's go back to our history lessons and what countries settled what lands in the U.S. Whose family was here first — Meryl Streep’s or Eva Longoria’s? Families like the Longorias (Spanish-Americans) had the Streeps beat by 245 years, but who do we consider the ‘American’ actress while Longoria gets the subcategorization of Latina Diva?
If you think it may be a select few that are so willfully ignorant, look at Trump’s poll numbers. The guy has a vocabulary of five words (total, loser, very, I’m, huge), and has yet to present a viable policy point. Yet all he’s had to do to jump miles ahead in the primary race was to declare that Mexicans are rapists and criminals.
Last week, when two men from Boston beat a Mexican homeless man to a pulp, he shrugged it off as people being ‘passionate about America being great again’. On Tuesday, El Donald had Univision anchor Jorge Ramos temporarily kicked out of a press conference, telling him to ‘go back to Univision’. Is ‘the Donald’ too busy rating women’s appearances and figuring out how to build fences to have read that Univision is America’s highest-rated network for three years in a row? Big mistake, ‘huge’.
While Trump may seem like an outlier, consider how the other GOP candidates are scrambling to own the term ‘anchor baby’ instead of showing up Trumps' monstrous campaign. Cruz and Jindal are all first and second generation Americans and they won’t even stand up for themselves.
Instead of embracing what makes this country unique, they’re doubling down an absurd belief system that will cut them off at the knees. You can’t get the keys to the White House without the Latino vote. As Mr. Ramos pointed out yesterday when he was let back in to the room, it simply does not happen.
Speaking of Ramos, more than a few in the media are commenting that he acted inappropriately by blurting out a question without being called on. That’s like complaining that an ump is calling a strike enthusiastically at a baseball game. It’s a press conference, that’s what happens at these highly charged events. Why are the talking heads clutching their pearls over his style when they should be jumping on the fact that Trump tried to humiliate a veteran reporter instead of dealing with the substance of his question?
Now back to Ms. Southern California … I don’t know what this woman’s story is, but I do know the Vasquez family. Without having met them, I know they’re humble, hardworking and sincere. Even as she was being attacked, Norma tried to justify her imperfect English with her effort to speak it. Her son Carlos tried to engage with the non-sensical trembling woman, calmly pointing out the hypocrisy of her ways, displaying a patience and a composure that most are incapable of. This family should give us all hope because they stood up to the lie and exposed it for what it is, fear.
I don’t know why some parts of 'English America’ are so intimidated by Latinos. But we’re dyed in the wool of this country. We always have been and we always will be. Many of us refuse to abandon our heritage and our language because we don’t believe in limiting our abilities. That doesn’t make us less American, it makes this a greater America.
Whether we’re cleaning toilets or running corporations, we’re keeping the American Dream alive because we’re not afraid of hard work. We know how to confront our deepest fears, it's what got our families here in the first place. It's in our DNA. The question now is, will English-only America be able to confront theirs? Time will tell and a country full of possibility waits for the answer.