Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.
When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”
You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’
He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.
We are a nation of immigrants, after all.
True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.
Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.
“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.
As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.
Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.
Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:
French (including Patois and Cajun)
Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.
“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.
He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.
The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.
The decision by the State Board of Education to approve an elective course for Mexican-American studies in Texas high schools should have triggered triumphant celebrations among the scholars and advocates who worked for years to make the curriculum a reality. Instead, many came away feeling like they were history’s losers once more.
“Discrimination!” Marisa Perez-Diaz, a member of the board, said in a blistering statement that captured the outrage of critics.
Perez-Diaz, a Democrat from Converse who is Mexican-American, was angry that the course will not be called Mexican-American Studies, as scholars and activists had advocated. Instead, after the objections of one member, the Republican-dominated board voted to strip the name and call the course “Ethnic Studies: An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent.”
The board member who proposed the new name, Beaumont Republican David Bradley, offered this explanation: “I find hyphenated Americanism to be divisive.”
To understand why some Texans consider that statement and the name change a slap in the face is to understand the history of Texas and how it has treated Mexican-Americans as something less than American – not as equals. It is a painful and shameful history that includes loss of rightful lands after the Mexican-American War, Jim Crow laws and systematic discrimination, separate and unequal schools, lynchings, deportations of Mexican-American citizens without due process, bigotry and signs at restaurants, parks, swimming pools and public places that told Mexican Americans they most certainly were not welcome there.
“No dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans,” the signs of Jim Crow-era segregation said.
Even in death, Mexican-Americans were not equals. In some Texas towns they were buried in separate cemeteries, as were African Americans.
But you won’t read much of that sordid history in high school classrooms in Texas, if at all. The historical Mexican-American experience is whitewashed and airbrushed out of textbooks and out of young Texans’ minds.
“To say that one does not believe in hyphenated Americans is one of the reasons we need this course,” Richard Flores, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Texas, told me. “Because this entire Mexican-American community was not accepted into the American way of life.”
Flores wrote the book, “Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol,” which tells a history of the famous battle that is different from the conventional narrative taught in Texas classrooms – that brave Anglos defeated savage Mexicans there. But as Flores’ book conveys, they were not alone — Tejanos, or Mexican-Americans, fought alongside those Anglos.
Throughout history, Mexican-Americans have been called all kinds of hateful epithets. Wetbacks, greasers, beaners, cockroaches, spics – these are some. The word “Mexican” also has historically been used as a slur — President Trump did in 2016 against a U.S. district judge.
To some, stripping the Mexican-American name from the high school course is another attempt to put Mexican-Americans in their place and to dictate their identity, a throwback – setback — to the 1940s and 1950s in Texas.
Angela Valenzuela, another Mexican-American studies scholar at UT who championed the new curriculum, said she would not want her name associated with it under its new name. Her mother would never forgive her, she said, because it harkens back to Jim Crow and the scars it left.
“My mother told us (an American of Mexican descent) is what I was,” she told me. “That was all we were allowed to be then because it was Americanization full throttle.”
Noting that Latinos make up 52 percent of school-age children in Texas – the vast majority Mexican American — Valenzuela said the education board sees Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a threat.
We don’t need a Mexican-American studies course only for its value in setting the historical record straight. We need it because it can highlight Mexican-American historical contributions too and affirm Mexican-Americans’ place as valued contributors to society.
“Without our stories, the message to young people is ‘We weren’t here, we weren’t important and we are not important,” said Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, director of the Voces Oral History Project at UT, which highlights the WWII contributions of Mexican-Americans who served their country, despite facing rampant discrimination at home.
Given Texas’ history, it’s easy to see how some might view that as threatening.
“We’re all Americans,” Bradley told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a melting pot and most of the board agreed with that.”
The irony of Bradley’s statement is that in the land that was Mexico long before Texas became a state, in the face of historical bigotry and discrimination, Mexican-Americans have wanted nothing more than to stake their full and rightful claim as Americans. As equals. Though we might not see it reflected in our textbooks, history teaches us this.
President Trump is learning that the problem with asking U.S. taxpayers to pick up the $18 billion tab for his border wall is that they have long memories. Particularly when there’s money involved.
They remember when Trump promised ad nauseam at campaign rallies across the country in 2016 that Mexico would pay for a wall. Trump staked his bid for the presidency on it.
So, it’s natural for them to ask now, “What do you mean, you want us to pay for it?”
Faced with the reality that Mexico won’t pay – they were never going to – it should be embarrassing for the president to have his hand out in order to make good on a campaign promise he knew he couldn’t deliver. He should be more embarrassed that he is asking for border wall funding at the same time he’s playing political games with the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as Dreamers. These are the immigrants who came to this country illegally when they were children. Trump is insisting that a deal in Congress to avert a government shutdown and to extend legal protections for these young immigrants will only happen if lawmakers approve funding for his vision of a border wall.
Still, Trump isn’t giving up on the idea that Mexico will pay, no matter how preposterous that idea might seem. On Thursday, he tweeted:
“The Wall will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico, which has a ridiculous $71 billion dollar trade surplus with the U.S. The $20 billion dollar Wall is “peanuts” compared to what Mexico makes from the U.S. NAFTA is a bad joke!”
Perhaps the president’s most ardent supporters will buy that sketchy “Don’t worry, Mexico will pay you back” promise, but most Americans won’t.
It’s important to note that most Americans don’t want a border wall, either, according to polling. And nearly nine in 10 Americans favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to a CBS News poll out today. DACA gives recipients work permits and protects them from deportation.
Dreamers shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ actions to bring them here in search of a better life — some were infants when they came. Nor should they be played for a political football.
The president can do the right thing and untether their fate from his condition for funding for a border wall, one that most Americans don’t want.
Trump tweeted more about the wall Thursday, taking the extraordinary step of contradicting his chief of staff by saying that his position on a border wall had not changed.
On Wednesday, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said Trump was not fully informed when he promised to build a wall last year. He said the president’s position had evolved.
Trump shot back on Twitter: “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…”
Bear in mind that the president promised over and over again in 2016 to build a wall spanning the nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border. More recently he’s told lawmakers that a continuous wall won’t be needed after all because of natural barriers. The $18 billion he’s asking for now would pay for about 900 miles of wall.
That sure sounds like a stance that’s evolved. What gives?
Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month the president had “discovered” there are rivers, mountains and rugged terrain that aren’t conducive to building a wall in some locations.
The headlines have been heartening lately for Latinos in Austin and across the country, at least when it comes to narrowing the income and education gaps that have dogged the nation’s largest minority group for years.
Recently, we learned that Latinos in the Austin-Round Rock metro area saw a hefty 17 percent increase in median household income from 2015 to 2016 — rising from $48,160 to $56,306, according to new census data.
Encouraging, yes, but it’s not time to get carried away just yet. It’s true that household incomes rose for Austin-area Latinos, but they still trail whites by a large margin.
Still, closing the income gap offers hope for anyone who believes in the old cliché that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for some time now in Austin, Latinos and African Americans have lagged behind whites in terms of quality of life barometers like income and educational attainment.
Attempts to close gaps led the city to launch Hispanic Quality of Life and African American Quality of Life initiatives, which I covered many years ago. The reviews were mixed. Some minority residents said they didn’t accomplish nearly enough. Some Austinites said the city should help all residents, not just certain minority groups. Regardless where you stood, many of the issues the initiatives sought to address back then are still around.
But back to the good news. Another reason to be encouraged is that there’s plenty of demographic evidence around to believe that if the Austin region will continue to prosper, the future will depend to a large part on the young and fast-growing Hispanic population.
In Travis County alone, 47 percent of the child population is Hispanic, researchers with the Community Advancement Network (CAN) found.
“When I speak to groups, I tell them, ‘That’s our future right there. That’s what the community is going to look like in 20 or 30 years,’” Raul Alvarez, who heads (CAN), told me.
Latinos already make up about 32 percent of the roughly 2 million overall population in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, according to 2016 census data. That’s no secret. What many people don’t know, however, is that demographic experts expect that the Latino population will become the largest portion of the Central Texas workforce sometime in about the next 15 years.
Such projections, however, increasingly lead to worries that Latinos will be left behind because as skill requirements for some careers rise, comparative lack of education could leave a growing share of the local Latino workforce stuck in low-wage jobs.
But there’s good news on that front, too. According to experts, one of the logical explanations behind the Latino income increase is that Latinos are reaching higher education levels.
The percentage of Texas Latinos ages 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree increased between 2015 and 2016, the American-Statesman reported recently.
A new report by the Pew Research Center also found that among Hispanics nationwide, the high school dropout rate is at a new low – 10 percent, continuing a decline spanning several decades. Moreover, as the Hispanic dropout rate plummeted, the share of Hispanic high school graduates who enter college rose, Pew reported.
While encouraging, the new income and education benchmarks aren’t all rosy, and pronounced disparities between minorities and whites persist.
Those figures showing the U.S. Hispanic high school dropout rate is at a new low of 10 percent? They don’t tell the full story: the Hispanic dropout rate was higher than for any other racial and ethnic group.
And though Austin Hispanics may have closed the gaps when it comes to income, they still lag far behind whites, whose median household income in 2016 was close to $74,000 – 31 percent higher than that of Latinos ($56,306) and 48 percent higher than that of African Americans (49,871).
And when income is measured another way – per capita –Hispanics in Central Texas make less than half of what Anglos on average make per year, according to the Austin Community Foundation.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that though Hispanics comprise only about a third of the overall Travis County population, they make up 55 percent of all Travis residents living in poverty, according to CAN, which keeps an annual Dashboard on its website that measures socioeconomic indicators.
It’s even worse for children. CAN researchers found that Hispanic children, although comprising 47 percent of the child population, make up 74 percent of all Travis County children living in poverty.
For Alvarez, that figure may be more troubling than anything else.
“That’s important because it says Hispanics are overrepresented in terms of family and poverty, and they’re going to face challenges that other populations are not going to face,” Alvarez told me.
In other words, there’s good news for area Latinos, but there’s much work to be done.