lunes, julio 21, 2008

Language: a broken contract

If English is a requirement of the American social contract, is there a place for those who want to preserve their native language, like Spanish?

By Ytaelena Lopez
(A translation of a Spanish article from Maynard Institute)

Language is not sum of the words we use every day, it is a social contract. We recognize each other as part of a culture through the language we speak. In the United States it is English. But what about people like me, living in the U.S. but writing (and speaking) in Spanish?

"There's only room for one language in this country, and that is the English language," said U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1914 referring to the mastery of the language as the most efficient way for immigrants who want to culturally assimilated into United States.

But in my mother's home in Miami we still speak Spanish to make things easier for some who came to this country late in life. They are U.S. citizens who exercise their right to vote, pay taxes and read the local press ... in Spanish.

There are 45 million Hispanics in the United States, that is, more than 15% of the total population, according to the U.S. Census. In some states like Texas, New Mexico or California, Spanish is spoken in 30 percent of the houses. In Puerto Rico more than 95 percent of the population speaks Spanish.

The implicit social contract, which defines a sense of belonging by language, is broken. Two alternatives remain: to negotiate a new social contract and bind people to common civic values rather than language, or exclude that troublesome segment of the population. The exclusion comes with two flavors of excuse: that they are a threat to national identity (eg, Samuel Huntington) or a 'demographic plauge' that demands extreme measures (John Tanton).

And while in the European Union it is required that children speak at least 3 languages, here defenders of "English Only" (which changed its name to U.S. English after the embarrassment of Tanton) propose to defend 80 percent of the population from the 20 percent who are bilingual. They collect signatures in Nashville for a law prohibiting any language other than English in public locations such as schools or town halls. Why not improve the quality of the education instead of promoting intolerance? If local authorities would stick to their real responsibilities and not making political hay, they would avoid embarrassments like this.

For me it is not new that people at conferences I go to (about technology, journalism, international relations, etc) ask me "where are you from?". My accent, still very strong, betrays me. Their surprise appears when I say that I am going to write an article in real time in Spanish for Latinos who use the Internet in the United States. It does not fit in their heads that this type of information, very common in Anglo-American media, will be released in Spanish within U.S. borders. Another rooster crows if I write about immigration, gentrification or any other similar topic related with poverty. Once when I mentioned that I took a Masters degree at FIU that was taught in Spanish, the person asked: "is that legal?"

Among the questions that I've heard was:
-- How could you get into this event?
-- Why they need a person who writes in Spanish if we are at an American event?
-- How can you work here if you are an alien?
-- When will you return to your country?

[Pictures about Xenophobia
This photo belongs to Daquella Way and is licensed under Creative Commons

It's an uncomfortable situation that obliges me to think carefully about every word. Language is the tool of the journalist and how I use it will determine how I am judged by my peers. In English, the weight of meaning is so high that it forces the speaker to be very cautious. In Spanish the importance of the moment is remarked by an abundance of signifiers (sound-image). In other words, "it's not nice" can become una gran metida de pata ("to mess up" or "to put your foot in it") because of a bad translation.

With study and practice, I gain more confidence every day. But a sharp "what?" from a native can hide a sour warning when I least expect it. Now I understand why many Latino immigrants deprive their children of a second language, Spanish, to save them from humiliation.

If that happens to me, with a Master earned in the United States, what will happen to those 14 million people (or more) than do not "know how to speak English well"? This number does not count illegal immigrants, estimated at over 12 million by the Pew Hispanic Center. Last year, a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated that "the illegal population in the United States rises by 408,000 people per year; more than half from Mexico."

I had been accustomed to Miami, where they understand you anyway, because half of its inhabitants were not born there and speak mostly Spanish. It is a city where identity is defined by free will: you choose to be part of the place and pay a price for it. The price higher than others. For example, Haitians, who arrived at the same time as Cubans, do not have the same legal advantages of the "wet foot" law. But as the Bacilos song says: "We all find a way to live."

I was surprised at second and third generation Cuban-Americans, loyal to the country in which they born (US) without leaving their cultural roots (Cuba). Their native language is English, but their strong binds with Spanish surpass the domestic sphere. Indeed, that bind is an advantage in their economical relations with Latin America.

Cuban-Americans manage to eliminate some clauses of the cultural contract to include themselves. They are Americans and the same time are americanos; they allow themselves this option.

Everything is open; the range of options enrich the debate, hoping to reach a solution. And we, from our position inside the media, can do much to promote tolerance. At least some peers are trying in Spain with such initiatives such as "Telenoticias sin fronteras", a broadcast made for immigrants by journalist-immigrants who reflect the new linguistic diversity (Chinese and Marakesh, not just Spanish and Catalan) of the Iberian peninsula. There are journalists from Morocco, Ivory Coast, China and South America. Like Armando Vargas, a fellow Venezuelan who has managed to assimilate in this new country without losing his Latin roots. Why not do something similar here in the United States?

It's worth a try.

Video of 'Telenoticias sin Fronteras' on Youtube

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