Linguistic assimilation is a xenophobic aggression: Mexican immigrants are forced to adopt English as their main language
‘Why are you speaking Spanish in an English class?’ It seemed as though my non-Latino White American high school classmate became flustered because he did not understand our native language – Spanish. I knew I could not let this anti-immigrant attitude continue even if it were considered a ‘joke’. Courageously, I replied back to his xenophobic question, ‘¿Tú sabes lo que estoy diciendo yo?’ (‘Do you know what I’m saying?’). There was a confused look on his face as he asked me, ‘What?’, and I answered, ‘Exactly’, as a way to make my point across: that his supposed ‘joke’ felt unwelcoming and distasteful. This is not just a personal anecdote but the experience of millions of Latin American immigrants in the US who are daily reminded that they must speak English only in order to ‘belong’ in their new host country.
When Mexican immigrants integrate into the United States society, they carry their native language, whether it be Spanish or Nahuatl, as a main form of communication. However, the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from American nationalists may discourage immigrants to keep their native language as their primary means of communication and may instead push them to adopt or hybridise the English language. That said, even though it is necessary for immigrants to learn English so they can communicate with native English speakers, Latin American immigrants should not be forced to ‘assimilate’ into the American society by prioritising English. As a result, the replacement of their native language obligates immigrants to dismiss their cultural linguistic roots through the course of following generations.
Linguistic assimilation and xenophobia under Trump
Linguistic assimilation is an undermining experience that Mexican immigrants come across when they arrive in the United States – a dominant country in the Global North considered as a ‘graveyard’ for foreign languages. Van C. Tran defines language assimilation as a ‘one-way process whereby members of ethnic groups acquired English and abandoned their mother tongue with the endpoint being English monolingualism’. For example, it is problematic that first-generation Mexican immigrants are constantly reminded by American native English speakers that our accents or native language should be modified to appease their listening comprehension demands. Adjusting my accent or speaking English to sound ‘American’ is to indirectly tell the person who did not understand me that my native language and my culture do not matter to them. It is not my job to speak in English all the time so others can understand me even in my personal moments when I am with family or friends. The Spanish language is a character trait that forms part of my identity because my parents raised me to value where I come from.
Having Donald Trump as president has worsened the conditions for Latin American immigrants living in the United States. Throughout Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he oftentimes claimed that the United States is a country whose citizens only speak English. Ever since his xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse took off, white supremacists have posted videos on different social media sites screaming at Spanish-speaking Latinos with the same rhetoric as Trump’s: ‘This is America! Speak English!’ They are continuously forcing Latino immigrants to assimilate into a white-based framework where their customs and language have to change. Monolingual White Americans feel threatened that they cannot understand what a Latino immigrant is saying. Thus, they direct their anger and frustration towards coloured Latin American immigrants who look and speak differently.
The implications of losing one’s native language
Bullied by anti-immigrant individuals, immigrants may be affected by such rhetoric and eventually sever their cultural roots, for example losing their native language. Third-generation Mexican immigrants that I have met state that they do not speak Spanish at home because either their parents were bullied in school for speaking it or they were bullied themselves. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, 51% of third generation Hispanic parents do not speak Spanish to their children. Another Pew Research Center report from 2017 points out that Americans with Hispanic ancestry identify less often as Hispanic across generations. These two key observations are correlated: third-and-higher-generation Americans with Hispanic heritage do not speak Spanish to their children and at the same time identify themselves more often as non-Hispanics.
Latin American immigrants speak their native language less over the generations because they are constantly discriminated against, as their native language is thought to be attached to a certain socioeconomic class. Ignacio Olmos, the then director of the Cervantes Institute in New York, stated that Spanish used to be the language gardeners and domestic workers spoke and that today it is the language that students learn in college. Even though he asserts that the times are changing, Spanish is still associated with socioeconomically disadvantaged Latino immigrants. Many non-Latino college students who learn Spanish are not pressured to assimilate into the American culture nor discriminated against, as they may enjoy a privilege based on race, ethnicity or nationality. My experience as a first-generation Mexican immigrant in the United States has been mixed. Whenever I am speaking Spanish with my family or friends and I walk near White Americans, sometimes they glance at me with a disturbed face expression. I ignore them and I continue to speak my mother tongue that represents my cultural roots, which I hope to pass onto the next family generation.
Latin American immigrants not only completely lose their native language, but they hybridise the English language into their own. For example, Spanish-speaking immigrants who settle across different states from the United States form their own blended dialect known as Spanglish. This dialect has caused controversy among both anti-immigrant Americans and conservative citizens from different countries across Latin America because Spanglish is deemed to be a threat to the grammar and syntax of their own native language. What these groups do not seem to understand is that for many Latinos, speaking Spanglish is a form of expressing their bicultural identity. Those who constantly speak Spanglish are reminded that they have roots originating from Spanish-speaking countries.
It is true that the English language is necessary to communicate with those who do not speak other languages in the United States. As of now, the US does not have an official language specified in the Constitution, but it holds English as the de facto national language, spoken by the majority of the people living in the US mainland and some of its territories. In the public sphere, English serves as a standard language that facilitates communication, since nearly 95% of Americans only speak English. However, if the US is supposed to be ‘the land of the free’, this democratic idea should allow Latin American immigrants to speak their native or hybridised language.
Gloria Abril Monroy is a senior undergraduate student from Tijuana, Mexico who intends to major in international relations and minor in anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her academic interests concern issues in the areas of economic development, human rights, migration and cultural anthropology in Latin America. Twitter: @gloriaamonroy