Hispanic Heritage: Why Spanish Matters

La Mezquita, or Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, southern Spain, is considered one of the treasures of humanity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its majestic geometry embodies the encounter of Africa, Europe, and Asia that unfolded in complex ways in medieval Spain and helped shape the modern Spanish language.

La Mezquita, or Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, southern Spain, is considered one of the treasures of humanity and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its majestic geometry embodies the encounter of Africa, Europe, and Asia that unfolded in complex ways in medieval Spain and helped shape the modern Spanish language.

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Spanish dominates foreign-language study in the US: 865,000 college students took it in 2009,  followed by French (216,000) and German (96,000). Spanish enrolls more than all other world languages combined. In K-12 public schools, the dominance is even greater: 2007-08 figures showed 6.4 million taking Spanish (72% of all foreign-language enrollment), French a very distant second at 1.3 million. Why is the “language of Cervantes” so widely studied (if not always mastered)? Here are some of the more common reasons:

A large and growing population. With around 40 million Spanish speakers, the US is exceeded only by Mexico, Spain, Colombia, and perhaps Argentina. Many see Census numbers alone as proving the importance of Spanish and making it “the language to learn.” Not to mention geography: the US shares a border with the most populous Hispanic country in the world, and millions more Spanish speakers live in the Caribbean, not far from Florida’s shores.

Community service.  Idealistic young people in substantial numbers pursue Spanish to help serve immigrant community needs such as literacy, health, legal aid, and education, or in missions of faith. In turn, those interactions often become an arena for “service learning” where classroom knowledge of the language is put to the enriching test of real-life experience.

It’s “easy”?  The perception of Spanish as easy to learn is widespread; many college students see it as a sort of “shortcut” to meeting language requirements.  It’s a half-truth: Spanish really is a marvel of grammatical and phonetic consistency, due in part to Nebrija’s 1492 Grammar (one of the earliest for a modern language) and the 1713 founding of the Royal Spanish Academy. But true mastery of the language is anything but easy to attain.

It’s “funny”? Fascination with “Spanglish”— incorporation of English words and patterns into immigrants’ spoken Spanish—treats as odd or unusual what is actually the natural result of any widespread contact between populations speaking different languages. In any case, this linguistic resource hardly amounts to a dialect, much less a separate language. Somewhat different is the popularity of “Faux Spanish”: dubious words and phrases such as “no problemo”, “perfectamundo”, “mucho macho”, or “el grande jefe” convey a playful, at times mocking, attitude towards Spanish and its speakers.

Language of labor. Many North Americans associate Spanish with poorer, often undocumented, immigrants—an understandable perception based on current media and political obsessions, and, for some people, personal experience.  Some knowledge of Spanish is useful to communicate with, and manage, laborers, in this view, but it’s not really to be considered a “serious language: the latter was actually the message a prestigious private school in Virginia explicitly placed on its website in the recent past, with the boast that for reasons of academic rigor, they proudly offered only French as a foreign language. The same unexamined premise was shared by the Amarillo, Texas family-court judge who infamously, in 1995, ordered a Mexican-born immigrant mother to stop speaking Spanish to her five-year-old daughter, on the grounds that using that language constituted “child abuse” and would condemn the girl to a future “as a housemaid.” (In each case, both school and judge, there was a later about-face in reaction to an avalanche of public criticism.)

A “quaint” culture.  It’s common to hear people express love for the culture, often in terms of salsa (cuisine) and salsa (music and dance).  Adjectives such as “colorful,” “quaint,” simple”, and “exotic” paint a Hispanic world of peasants, rural and village life, “traditions”. This view can unintentionally place Hispanic or Latino people in a primitive past, even outside of time. An associated perception sees Spanish as the language of places college students on Spring break and other tourists go to run wild, places—many of them—that the United States once conquered, occupied, or dominated. Indeed, this is the other side of the coin from language-of-manual-laborers. A long history of power relations has planted such deeply-rooted habits of thought in the dominant culture of this society.

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The reasons sampled above present quite a mix. Sincere interest in other cultures is there, as are a calling to service, faith, and love of justice. So, too, in some measure and in certain contexts, are simplistic romanticization, patronizing superiority, and power agendas.

There are also some other, crucial reasons why Spanish matters and why learning it is one of the best things you can do in the early 21st century:

A global language. Spanish now ranks second in the world in number of native speakers, with over 410 million (approximately 1 in 20 members of the human race), trailing only Mandarin Chinese. English, with over 360 million worldwide, is in third place, right behind (though it vaults into second place when we add the number of people who speak it as a second language). Portuguese, which I like to call Spanish’s “fraternal twin”—English has no such closely-related living language—has over 220 million native speakers, mostly in rising economic powerhouse Brazil; Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese to a considerable degree and have an automatic head-start in learning that language.

Economic power. The US’s 53 million Hispanics (1 in 6 people!) spend some $1.3 trillion annually; Spanish-speaking countries’ combined GDP, $3.4 trillion, equals industrial giant Germany (add sister nation Brazil, and the resulting grand total of $5.9 trillion matches Japan). There are countless markets to sell to, jobs to be done, and texts to be translated, by people who have significant mastery of the language (a mastery inseparable, in the end, from cultural understanding).

A world civilization.  Every language bears witness to a people’s experience and creativity.  For Spanish that includes ancient Iberian, Celtic, Roman, and Germanic legacies, as well as the unique Rom or “Gypsy’ presence (Spanish gitanos, a word derived from egiptanos and bearing witness to the passage of part of that wandering people into North Africa via Egypt); a near-millennium of Christian-Jewish-Muslim coexistence (albeit later shattered by crusades, expulsions, and inquisition); the world’s first global empire; and, today, twenty multicultural societies of indigenous, African, European, and Asian heritage.  Just one example of the cultural richness that Spanish embodies: in societies viewed as overwhelmingly Christian, one says ¡Ojalá! (Arabic Inshallah) for “I hope so!”

The Knight of the Woeful Countenance. Likely the world’s best-known and loved work of fiction, Cervantes’s Don Quixote crowns a literature that includes the brilliant 17th-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; the greatest of modern stylists, José Martí, who died fighting for Cuban independence; Chile’s beloved poet Pablo Neruda, Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges with his metaphysical mysteries, and master storytellers of our lifetime like Colombia’s García Márquez, Peru’s Vargas Llosa, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Chile’s Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez of the Dominican Republic.

Recovering one’s own heritage.  Significant numbers of US-born (or raised) Hispanics are English-dominant, even monolingual (note that the Hispanic/Latino population, at 53 million, is larger than the Spanish-speaking figure of roughly 40 million). For “heritage learners,” as the language-teaching profession calls those who grew up with significant home exposure to Spanish, learning it can be a powerful reclaiming of family and cultural legacy.

An outlook on life.  To master Spanish is to learn another way of being in the world, a peculiar combination of seriousness, humor, hierarchy, and dignity. The native English speaker learns to tuck away that ever-present, imperial pronoun “I” (the only one English capitalizes!), taking on a more sparingly-used yo: Spanish embodies a certain modesty.  One learns words for relationships and customs English can’t name: compadre or comadre if you’re their kid’s godparent, tocayo if you share the same name, sobremesa for staying at the table talking after a meal.  Saying “Nos vemos mañana” (See you tomorrow), one often adds “…si Dios quiere” (God willing): a small linguistic bow to the Deity, or simply to life’s unknowns. There are many valid reasons to learn Spanish; it’s fine as preparation for a Cancun vacation or to improve a company’s HR.  But recognizing Spanish as a global economic force, a major world literature, and an avenue for genuine intercultural fluency offers a range of other motivations for a pursuit that can turn out to be be mind-expanding, even life-changing.

Copyright ©2013 by Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this article was published by The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN) on Fri., Sep. 27, 2013. Pablo J. Davis received his graduate training in Latin American History at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities, and is a longtime professionally certified translator and interpreter, as well as trainer in those fields as well as in intercultural awareness and skills (www.interfluency.com). He is currently studying law as a member of the Class of 2017 at the University of Memphis Law School


Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation: To translate or not to translate – DREAMers


Dear readers,

The 2012 presidential election underscored the active influence of people of Latin American origin on the political, not to mention the social, cultural, and economic life, of the United States.

Against this backdrop, a social movement has been born: young Hispanics/Latinos, brought to the US as children via informal immigration (to persist in calling it “illegal” flies in the face of logic, not to mention basic decency), now dream of college study, work, and access to all the possibilities of a full life.

Signs at a march in favor of the DREAM Act. Note the verbatim allusion in the middle sign to the famous phrase pronounced by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 Poor People’s March on Washington.

Why do they call themselves “Dreamers” and not the Spanish Soñadores?

All languages import foreign words. English “passport” comes from French, “hoosegow” from Spanish juzgado. Thinking of the recent hurricane, “levee” is French in origin, “dike” Dutch.

Spanish took English input, French menú, Arabic  alcohol, Náhuatl tomate (the last three entered English, too).

They’re “loan words” but, oddly, are never returned!

Some linguists classify loans either as legitimate, supplying a void in the borrowing language (English had no way to say “alcohol” other than to use the Arabic word, and Spanish likewise), or as “barbarisms” made unnecessary by the prior existence of an equivalent word or words (why use chauffeur when we already had “driver”?). But the foreign word, far from being unnecessary, tends to offer, usefully, a different tone or connotation.

This helps us understand “Dreamers”. First, the movement seeks passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act; that name, with its patriotic undertones, makes sense on petitions and protest signs.

And what could be more natural for a generation growing up in the US and steeped in its culture, than to tap the inspiration and emotional power of the term “American Dream”— not to mention the echoes of Dr. King’s immortal phrase.  The logic underlying this use of “Dreamers” is compelling. Sometimes, we translate best by not translating.

¡Buenas palabras!


Copyright ©2012 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved.


A version of this essay, together with its English-language version, was originally written for La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), appearing in the 9 Sept. 2012 edition. It was part of the weekly column entitled Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traduccion.

Cinco de Mayo not the ‘real’ Mexican national day?

The sense of shared identity that binds an immigrant group together in its adopted home is no mere transplanting of old-country customs.  It involves creativity and innovation—and a dual process of celebrating ancestral ties while affirming group emergence into the fabric of life in the new country.

Calabrians, Sicilians, Tuscans, Abruzzians and other immigrants from the Italian Peninsula began to draw together in the late-19th-century U.S., just when a unified ‘Italy’ was being born.  Columbus Day, Oct. 12 (also, later, ‘Día de la Raza’ or ‘Day of the Hispanic/Latino People’) grew by the 20th century into an Italian-American affirmation.  For the Irish, whose history of mass immigration here is a half-century older, St. Patrick’s (St. Paddy’s) Day plays a similar role, as has Oktoberfest for German-Americans.

So, curious Americans’ periodic discovery that Cinco de Mayo –the Fifth of May—isn’t the ‘real’ Mexican national holiday (that would be Independence Day, Sep. 16), somewhat misses the point of the day: the affirmation of Mexicanness in a new land.

It commemorates not Mexico’s winning of independence from Spain (1821) but a more complex historical moment: Liberals’ 1862 military victory in the Battle of Puebla over French invaders and their Conservative allies.  Starting in the mid-1840s, Mexico was wracked by a sequence of horrors unimaginable to most Americans—half of national territory lost in the U.S.-Mexican War; prolonged civil war triggered by the Liberals’ (most famously Benito Juárez’s) anti-clerical, anti-aristocratic reforms; a British-French-Spanish triple invasion, ostensibly to collect debts from a land bled dry by war; and finally a full-blown French occupation in alliance with the civil war’s defeated Conservatives.

The Mexican triumph at Puebla, against a superior French force double in size, forms an imperfect and contradictory part of the larger historical story.  Ironies abound in its celebration.  For one thing, after Puebla the French actually prevailed, ruling Mexico for three years.  Also, a key figure at Puebla, young Gen. Porfirio Díaz, later became a dictatorial president whose endless, corrupt reelections eventually triggered the Mexican Revolution.

There are more ironies: the French had long dreamed of achieving footholds in former Spanish America.  Read more of this post

“Giants own Patriots” or “Papá Gigantes”?!!

With their stunning Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots, the New York Giants not only became NFL champions for the second time in a five-year span, they also extended their recent, but impressive, domination of the team that has been pro football’s standard of excellence for the past decade.

The Giants, in the phrase of the hour, “own” the Patriots. (One example among thousands: “It’s Official: The Giants Still Own the Patriots“.)

Think about that for a minute! Sports domination expressed in terms of ownership—the dominated rival as the “property” of the dominator. Read more of this post

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