SPANISH IS NOT A FOREIGN LANGUAGE: PUBLISHING AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
In 2018, the Latinx population in the United States reached 59.9 million. Given the current climate of fear and uncertainty created by the policies of the Trump administration toward immigrant families as well as historical attitudes toward Latin American immigration more generally, it is safe to assume that those numbers are, in fact, higher. The United States has the second largest Spanish-speaking population in the world after Mexico. What does this mean for the publishing world? It means daring to publish in Spanish.
More than ten years ago, Columbia University Professor Carlos J. Alonso responded to a perceived problem within universities in the United States that persists to this day: the dominance of Spanish in foreign language programs. Enrollment in Spanish classes far exceeded that of other languages, posing administrative challenges such as the simultaneous under-enrollment in certain language courses taught by university faculty and the need to hire more lecturers in Spanish. For Alonso, this problem was not administrative, it was cultural. The United States hadn’t (and still hasn’t) accepted that Spanish is not a foreign language in the country. “The omnipresent bilingual English-Spanish signs, the ubiquitous automated telephone option ‘Para español, oprima el número dos,’ the direct mailings written in Spanish, the targeted telephone solicitations in that language, […] the snippets of conversations in Spanish that we hear with increasing frequency. […] Anyone who has visited another country in which there are at least two official languages quickly becomes aware of being immersed in such a context right here at home.” Alonso did not argue for a co-dominant linguistic or cultural reality in the United States. It is unarguable that English is the dominant language in the country. What he argued is that Spanish is not a foreign language but rather a “second national language.” Recognizing this would not just entail changes in language programs, it would also entail rethinking American studies and history – in other words, rethinking the landscape of US culture.
Spanish is not a foreign language but rather a “second national language.” Recognizing this would not just entail changes in language programs, it would also entail rethinking American studies and history.
There are many reasons why students might want to learn Spanish. There is a significant percentage of the US population for whom Spanish is a first or second language. This means that speaking the language can be a career advantage, opening doors to work not only internationally but also domestically. Some may want to aid in navigating legal and medical systems that function in English, some may want to be able to speak to the parents of the children they teach, some may want to sell products or services to a growing Spanish-speaking population. The possibilities for how this knowledge could become useful continue to diversify.
However, language is not only a tool for communication. It is a lens through which to view the world, a culturally and geographically constructed system of symbols that translates the flow of the material world as we perceive it. In this sense, its sounds, its structures, its metaphors carry history, cosmologies, epistemologies. Thus, erasing a language means erasing a way to relate to the world. Spanish was a colonizing language. Its spread at the tip of a sword was part of a campaign of effacement against indigenous cultures in the Americas, more successful in some places than in others. This history of violence is also embedded in words such as “chingada,” an expression that inscribes the complex implications of the unequal relationship of power between Hernan Cortéz and La Malinche for people of Mexican heritage. Spanish is not an innocent language and yet, for many of us in the Americas, it is the only mother-tongue we have.
For some, learning to speak Spanish means being able to relate to their families, to their roots, to their personal histories. In the poem “Volver, Volver,” Afromexicana writer Ariana Brown powerfully evokes the experience of trying to reconnect with a heritage she feels she was robbed of:
How does one lose an accent? coat the tongue in ice and watch the frosted muscle forget all its memories? Mexico, a country which once included a third of the United States, is home to the largest Spanish speaking population in the world. My grandmother attended public school in Texas in the fifties, before it was legal to speak her native tongue in a classroom.
4. Years later, at a play in my hometown of San Antonio, a stranger asks me a question in Spanish. I answer, pronouncing each syllable with the pride I inherited.
Frustrating, how it is easier to communicate with a stranger than my own grandmother, that despite four and a half years of Spanish classes, I am still afraid that in front of my family, my shivering tongue will shake to a western rhythm, dry out, and die.
11. In times of crisis, the mouth will bake the air inside it, choose to remain silent to survive. The slow heat produces a small sun. To keep the sun from breaking on its way out of the mouth, the tongue must reacquaint itself with the work of legacy.
12. The work is never done.
Given the size of the Spanish-speaking community in the United States, which includes those who might not have Hispanic heritage but choose to learn Spanish, it is time to let this language speak.
Brown is describing the embodied experience of being cut off from her heritage, of feeling her tongue “shiver” with difficulty when speaking a language that generations of discrimination have made foreign to her voice. Her poem evokes the desperation caused by the disconnect between the body that she inhabits and the history that it brings with it, and her lived experience growing up in Texas speaking only English. Her tongue is a place of struggle, which takes the form of an accent in every Spanish utterance.
The ongoing process of recognizing the diversity of voices in this country calls for the simultaneous recognition that these voices might come in other languages, that they might come in other genres, that they might come embedded in other systems of thought. In this context, publishers have a key role to play. The network of voices they highlight functions as a mirror, which can either reflect ingrained assumptions about the cultural identity of the nation or challenge them. Given the size of the Spanish-speaking community in the United States, which includes those who might not have Hispanic heritage but choose to learn Spanish, it is time to let this language speak. So, if you can, publish in Spanish, publish in Spanglish. Elevate the voices of those who might not have access to English-speaking texts and bring this rich discursive world to those who might learn from it, who might need it, who might crave it.
 Alonso, Carlos J. “Spanish: The Foreign National Language.” adfl37, no. 2-3 (2006): 17.
 Ariana Brown, Press Kit, http://www.arianabrown.com/uploads/1/6/1/2/16122250/press_kit.pdf
Lucía Cash is a Ph.D. candidate in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at the University of California, Irvine.