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Between fear and pride: in hostile climate, Hispanics wonder if it's still safe to speak Spanish

In recent months, several Latinos have become victims of racist incidents after speaking Spanish in public. Now, some say they’re torn between a fear of using their mother tongue in public and claiming language as an essential element of their identity.
13 Jul 2017 – 02:28 PM EDT

On May 20, Hector Torres was at the airport in Reno, Nevada, when he decided to call his mom. While chatting with her in Spanish, a man began to verbally assault him:

"Learn how to fucking speak English, we live in America," said the man. He also called Torres, 44, a 'spic', an offensive term used to refer to Hispanics. Torres says he tried to keep calm: he recorded the incident on his cell phone and published it to social media, where it quickly went viral. Within hours, his story appeared on media outlets across the country, including Univision Noticias.

"It was a sad experience," Torres, who is Puerto Rican and lives in Florida, told Univision a month after the episode. "And it makes me sad because I know it happens a lot, I know. I see people hiding, talking quietly, fearful."

It is completely legal to speak Spanish – or any other language – in public in the United States. More than 350 languages are spoken in the country, which is home to more than 40 million Spanish speakers, a number that exceeds that of Spain and Colombia, and is fewer only than Mexico.

But in recent months, more than a dozen Hispanics have reported similar experiences to Univision through Documenting Hate, a project that is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes around the country since the presidential election. From a veteran who now works as a truck driver and was interrupted while speaking over the radio, to a director at the National Education Association who was on the phone with her mom at a supermarket, they say they have suffered verbal assaults stemming from using their native language in public.

Eight months ago, Patricia Cabrera, a 42-year-old Mexican immigrant working as a seamstress in Eureka, California, was shopping at a local grocery store and talking to her kids when a man turned around and said, "Here in America we speak English, not Spanish."

Angelina Cid, 55, also a seamstress and of Guatemalan origin, faced a similar situation at a veterinary clinic in the Bronx, New York. The man attending to her sick cat reacted aggressively when Cid could not communicate in English. "I felt he insulted me, but I don’t know what he said because I do not speak English well," she told Univision. Cid called her daughter Glenda to help. But Glenda received the same treatment: "He said a lot of racist barbarities," she says.

Other episodes have been recorded and shared online in recent months. In Kentucky, two Hispanic women were verbally assaulted by a white woman while waiting in line at a store. "Speak English, you're in America," she told them. "If you don’t know it, learn it." In Tampa, Florida, a cashier at 7-Eleven shouted at a Cuban customer who was buying cigarettes in Spanish, demanding to know if he was legal and if he speaks English.

The episodes all have one thing in common: They involve some variation of the phrase, "This is America, speak English." That’s used to suggest that it is wrong to speak a language besides English in U.S. territory. Donald Trump himself made a similar statement during the presidential campaign when he criticized Jeb Bush for speaking in "Mexican." “He should really set an example by speaking English in the United States,” Trump said.

Of course, "Mexican" is not a language, nor is English the official language of the United States, despite efforts by a number of Republican lawmakers to establish it as such.

"Language is about culture, about identification in a country with many nationalities," says Rocio Inclan, director of the Department of Human Rights and Civil Rights of the National Education Association. “All this talk of 'This is America, America first' only incites the idea of 'the other' in our country."

Spanish, a "sensory trigger"

Ryan Lenz, a senior investigator at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that monitors hate across the United States, points out that anti-immigrant hate groups have long rejected the use of Spanish. "Spanish incites extremism, which is a movement with roots in Western European values, where people believe the language should be English."

Attacks on non-English speakers in the U.S. are not new. By the 19th century, both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had expressed fear that German – the most widely spoken second language in the U.S. until World War I – could compromise the Anglo-American identity of the United States.

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, patriotism surged. "There were bans on speaking German specifically and other foreign languages suffered too," says Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. "Immigrant languages in America went into decline, including in schools."

Before WWI, 25 percent of U.S. high school students studied German as foreign language; after the war, one percent, Barron says.

Following a period of more open immigration laws in the 60s, the last 20 years have seen another surge in anti-English sentiment, with incidents periodically making headlines. In 2005, a popular cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia posted a sign reading, "This Is America When Ordering Please 'Speak English.'" It was removed in 2016. In 2011, a Texas state senator told a man that his Spanish-language testimony was "insulting" during a committee hearing.

Brian Levin, director of California State University's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, calls language a "sensory trigger" for racism. "We are becoming a more diverse country, and what are three things that are symbol of that? Skin color, religion, and language," says Levin. "And these are tangible symbols that bigots will rally against.”

Among the promoters of the English-only mentality is the organization ProEnglish, founded by retired Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, who is considered the father of the modern anti-immigrant movement. Tanton founded ProEnglish in 1994 after being forced to resign from its predecessor, U.S. English, after the Arizona Republic newspaper leaked memos that Tanton had sent to a group of white nationalists in which he made racist comments and expressed concern about the fertility rate and growth of Latinos in the United States.

ProEnglish’s main objective is to promote laws and public policies that recognize English as the official language of the United States, both locally and nationally. The organization supports Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who has sponsored legislation (H.R. 997) over the last 10 years – unsuccessfully – to establish English as the official language of the United States. Some individual states already have laws declaring English their official language, but the degree of application varies widely: from simple recognition (Illinois) to regulations requiring government communications be in English (Tennessee).

States where English is the official language
The states marked in red have laws that declare English their official language. But those laws vary widely: from a simple designation (Illinois) to a mandate that all government communications be conducted in English (Tennessee).

ProEnglish argues that immigrants can assimilate into the U.S. only by speaking English. It also opposes bilingual education and multi-language ballots.

But SPLC, which describes ProEnglish as an anti-immigrant group, says the racist roots of the organization delegitimize its intentions. It’s linked to other organizations associated with Tanton, such as FAIR and NumbersUSA, which work "to reduce the level of immigration."

The ProEnglish ideology now has an ally in the White House. As a congressman in Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence was an avid supporter of H.R. 997, and during the campaign, he met with the president of ProEnglish and promised to continue advocating for the prevalence of English in the United States. "When my ancestors came here they already spoke English. Speaking English is the key to assimilation and the achievement of the American dream," he said.

But assimilation isn’t solely an extremist view. A number of Democrats have favored greater English instruction for immigrants as a way to foster their integration into society. During her run for president, Hillary Clinton proposed to “significantly increase federal resources for adult English language education and citizenship education.”

And in his 2006 autobiography, "The Audacity of Hope," then Illinois senator Barack Obama wrote: "When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration."

Hide your language or claim it?

As Hispanics denounce a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and several organizations point to an increase in hate crimes and incidents, some people say they are reluctant to continue speaking Spanish in public, while others are more determined than ever to speak in their native tongue.

Cabrera, the immigrant who was silenced at a store in Eureka, says she wants to speak Spanish to her children so they are bilingual and have more opportunities. "I have let them know that they should consider themselves fortunate to know two languages," she says. "They are bilingual children and can stand out speaking Spanish and English: that makes them different, but not bad," she adds.

Julio, who requested not to use his last name, was the butt of racist jokes in a Dallas donut shop in June after speaking Spanish. Though he says he’s been “humiliated” since the incident, which occurred in front of his two young sons, he refuses to stop speaking Spanish to them. “It’s the only way that they can practice the language, because they spend most of their days speaking English,” he says.

Inclan, who is of Mexican origin and a resident of Washington, D.C, was recently singled out for speaking Spanish with her mother on the telephone at a Whole Foods supermarket. "An older white woman came up to me and said, 'This is America, you have to speak English.'"

"I reminded her that because this is America, I can speak any language I want," Inclan says. "I told her I’m sorry she feels so intimidated by diversity and color. And that she should really check her racism and bias."

Others don’t feel emboldened. Noelia, an Oakland-based Uruguayan reporter who preferred not to reveal her last name, says that she used to use her time commuting on the train to call her father. But since the election she tries to avoid speaking Spanish. "I've never been so aware of my accent as I am now," she says.

Cid, the Guatemalan woman who had problems at the veterinarian, refuses to take her pet, who is still sick, to see a doctor: "I feel that they are going to insult me again," she says.

In June, Jennifer Acosta, an immigrant of Cuban origin who graduated from Duke magna cum laude, wrote an article on the subject that went viral. In it, she expressed her fear that violence against Spanish speakers could deprive her younger sister and others of their roots and immigrant, bicultural and bilingual identity. "Choosing to speak Spanish in public, while not without consequences, has become an act of subversion now more than ever," Acosta wrote.

"To give up Spanish is like letting them win," Acosta told Univision over the phone.

However, she's also concerned for undocumented immigrants who fear deportation and for whom the "subversive act” of speaking Spanish could become a risk.

"Security comes first: you have to find the balance between speaking Spanish in public to normalize it and not putting yourself in danger," she says.

Torres, the man attacked at the airport, agrees: "Those of us who are residents must speak Spanish now more than ever.”

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