Last week I turned on the TV—something I rarely do unless there’s a game console hooked to it—and I saw something I had never seen before.
I watched a bilingual presidential primary debate in the United States of America.
Now, I’m not here to talk about Hillary or Bernie as candidates—and I will become a comment moderation autocrat if anyone tries to hijack this conversation with that one. What I am here to talk about is the importance of language in this country.
The US has always been a multilingual country. It has been multilingual longer than it has been a country.
Hundreds of American Indian languages were spoken in the territory that is the US today, and when European colonists came—not all from the same country or language—a whole collage of languages crashed together. The more people came to this corner of the world from every other, the more languages and cultures and ideas came with them.
To this day, that process is still going and growing. Not without conflict—it never has been, certainly not from the first generation of illegal immigrants that came over from Europe and completely screwed over the native population. But, with hard work and compassion, this diversity has made the US thrive.
Take a walk in any major US city and you’re likely to hear at least half a dozen different languages. The languages you hear will be different depending on what city you’re in—even what part of the city you’re in.
I think that’s awesome. I think it’s beautiful. And, though I’m not in any way prone to patriotic hyperbole, yes, I do think it’s What Makes America Great.
And one of the few constants is—whatever city you’re in—one of those languages is going to be Spanish.
An estimated 52 million Americans speak Spanish. That’s more Spanish speakers in the US than there are in Spain. Half as many as there are in Mexico—and second only to our southern neighbor in terms of the number of Spanish speakers in one country.
Spanish, as a language, and Hispanics and Latin@s, as people, are irrevocably part of this country’s lifeblood.
If you don’t like that? Maybe you should start by asking your ancestors why they felt the need to invade Mexico and steal a huge chunk of land including modern-day California.
I, for one, was thrilled to see a debate so thoroughly grounded in issues that matter to Latin@s. More than that, Americans were able to ask major political candidates questions in Spanish. The moderators conducted the debate in our country’s two most spoken languages, switching between them easily and like it was no big deal.
It was a big deal, at least to me—even though there’s absolutely no good reason that it should be.
If this was so thrilling to some white kid who could barely cling to half of that Spanish, how do you think it felt to the Americans who have been marginalized for so long because of their native language?
This is why representation is important. Not just representation in media, as writer-types like me are so fond of talking about. This is representation in democracy, political discourse, all of the things that the US claims make it a great country.
So do I think American political debates should be held in Spanish?
I hope that this is only the first of many.