Saturday, March 25, 2006

Multilingual by our own Choice

"So one day I said to myself: So I'm a Mexican—so what? What's wrong with that? Nothing, I discovered. I relearned Spanish, I went back to my old name and found out that I could still be a good American and have my Mexican cake, too . . . . Being bicultural can be an advantage in this complicated new world, you know?"

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo clearly shows why the Mexican-American minority is "unique" and why Mexican-Americans can not be thought of as "foreign." *

Mexicans, with the exception of the American Indians, are the only minority in the United States who were annexed by conquest. The rights of Mexicans, again with the exception of the Indians, are specifically safeguarded.

The fact that Mexicans lost the Mexican-American War—a war, incidentally, called "unjust" by generals from U.S. Grant to Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy—does not change the fact that Mexicans are very much of the Southwest. They are no more foreigners to the Southwest than the cactus that grows there.
Ruben Salazar, "Mexican-Americans have Culture Protected" (1963). * Note: Salazar unfortunately omitted mention of Puerto Ricans and Hawai'ians as other annexed minorities.

All the stupidity concerning the anti-immigration legislation has really angered me. The rhetoric verges on the illogical, illegal, and ahistorical. Particularly with regard to language, I have flipped my lid. Not to mention that Spanish is an American language (by the diplomatic choices made by Americans and by treaty), multilingualism is not a weakness. I've already said quite a bit in my post over at Cliopatria:

Attempting to frame immigration issues, CNN's Lou Dobbs pulled out a quote from Theodore Roosevelt on the unity of American identity and culture and the obligation of immigrants to assimilate.

In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.

The backdrop for thus quote was the tens of thousands who protested new immigration legislation in the streets of Phoenix.

This Dobbs moment was too cute: a quote from a beloved president on an issue of urgency. I wish that Dobbs had first reflected on the fallacy of what Roosevelt said before using it. This is the worst of 'bad history': choosing a quote that itself warped the reality of its time. Addressing immigrants, Roosevelt lumped together all those who came from a non-European, non-English speaking culture into the same category. Yet many Californios, Nuevo Mexicanos, and Tejanos were not immigrants. They had been in their territories for a long time, becoming Americans by annexation and purchase. Until late in the nineteenth century, these territories were better reached from northern Mexican states than eastern and mid-western American states. The experiences of Mexicans in America up to Roosevelt's presidency were exclusionary, not integrative. New Mexico, the most developed part of the Mexican Borderlands, languished as statehood was withheld--despite the eagerness of the Hispanos to prove their loyalty. Moreover, there is something ironic that Roosevelt, hero of the Spanish-American War, would take this attitude since his actions in war brought about the annexation of so much Spanish-speaking territory; the people whom he conquered would be denied membership in the nation.

Anti-immigrant discourse focuses on the introduction of foreign elements that will corrode American culture. Language is but one of these elements that, in their opinion, is in danger. Not that Americans own English ... even Britains no longer own a language that has been appropriated by many as a medium of globalized intercourse; the purity of English is elusive. But proponents of harsh immigration laws should realize the truth. Spanish has always been spoken here. It is not foreign; it was not imported covertly for subversive purposes. (Indeed, it was a language used to dominate Native Americans as much as English.) Moreover, the ability to speak Spanish was preserved in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (along with all cultural traits.) Calling people who speak Spanish immigrants won't make America a country that speaks only English.


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