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Spanish Is Part Of U.S. Cultural Fabric


March 7, 2005
Copyright © 2005 NEWS-LEADER. All rights reserved.

Where the issue of language is concerned, the United States can be a wonderfully complicated place full of paradoxes.

For instance, Americans are always complaining that Latinos – especially immigrants – defiantly resist learning English. Many English speakers are clearly annoyed by things such as bilingual ballots and bilingual education, Spanish-language billboards and recorded phone messages that ask you to press "1 for English" and "2 for Spanish." A lot of these people don't even seem to understand why they're upset. They assume that the reason Spanish is becoming so prevalent in America today is because a bunch of Latino activists demanded that everything be translated.

The truth is, it wasn't picket signs or raised fists that brought about a proliferation of Spanish, especially in advertising and marketing. It was the allure of the nearly $1 trillion that Latinos spend each year.

But here's the paradox: In their own lives, a growing number of Americans can't seem to get enough Spanish – or for that matter, the whole Latin experience.

The latest example: this year's Academy Awards, in which the Oscar for best original song went to "Al Otro Lado del Rio" ("On the Other Side of the River"), the poignant ballad penned by Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler. Taken from the Spanish-language film "The Motorcycle Diaries," the song had already broken an important barrier by becoming the first Spanish-language song ever nominated in that category. Given that the song was performed by Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana, and that their performance was introduced by Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, there's no doubt that the show's producers were trying to add some Latin spice to the telecast.

We could have seen this coming. Recent audience surveys of those who watch soccer's World Cup have turned up something interesting: tens of thousands of English-speaking soccer fans are opting to watch the tournament on Spanish-language television. As more parents decide to expose their children to Spanish, those schools that offer two-way bilingual programs – where students speak English part of the day and Spanish the rest – find themselves with waiting lists. Go to the concert of any successful Mexican recording artist, someone like Luis Miguel, and you're likely see white kids in the stands.

When Drexler won his Oscar, he used his acceptance speech to sing a few lines from the song – in Spanish. As I watched, it occurred to me that the transformation of the language was complete. It is now firmly ensconced in the mainstream.

Those who gripe about too much Spanish say they're concerned that Latinos will use the language to segregate themselves. It's exactly the opposite. The more people speak Spanish, the more Spanish becomes part of the American fabric.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune.

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