America the Bilingual

When the Census Bureau announced in 2003 that Hispanics had surpassed African Americans as the nation's largest minority, it was more than a mere demographic fact: it was a formal declaration that the United States had become a bilingual nation.

For most of its history, America has had a no-nonsense social contract with the immigrant: you are welcome, provided you become "American." To enter the mainstream of American life, one had to speak English, lest he or she be marginalized in a "Little Italy," a "Chinatown" or any other working class ethnic ghetto. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of immigrants signed on, some even changing their names upon arriving at Ellis Island to something that sounded more "American," and insisting that their American-born children speak only English.

By the second half of the 20th century, through sheer numbers, Hispanics had changed the terms of this contract, undermining the myth of the "melting pot." For the first time, there was a permanent resident population that, however proficient in English, refused to surrender its native language. In 1970, the Census Bureau created a new category to track this Spanish-speaking population: Hispanic.

Some critics decried "Hispanic" as an artificial construct. Others, most notably African Americans, saw something sinister: a deliberate attempt by white America to create divisions among blacks. There are today, after all, four major "black" Americans: African Americans, Hispanics of color (such as baseball great Sammy Sosa and the late diva Celia Cruz), West Indians (who reject an African American label), and immigrants from Africa, who may call themselves by their country name (Nigerian American, for example) to avoid confusion with American-born African Americans. There are emerging identities: some dark-skinned Dominican and Puerto Rican youth in New York City have taken the term "Blatinos."

But forcing a political reading on Hispanic ascendancy ignores the role of the capitalist system in transforming the United States into a bilingual consumer market. Whereas in Canada, political legislation mandates that everything be in English and French, in the United States, it is American business that is largely responsible for the proliferation of Spanish.

For decades, American corporate executives have watched with awe the explosion in the Hispanic consumer market. Hispanics today control more than $600 billion in purchasing power; by 2010, this will reach $1 trillion. The rise in the economic power of Hispanics in the United States, and the way they identify themselves – by culture and language, not race – have created a consumer market that coexists alongside the larger "Anglophone" one.

These parallel economies have alarmed some English-speaking Americans. Joan Didion's description of the linguistic "problem" in her book "Miami" is familiar. "An entrepreneur who spoke no English could still, in Miami, buy, sell, negotiate, leverage assets, float bonds, and, if he were so inclined, attend galas twice a week, in black tie." Among Anglos, she writes, "there remained considerable uneasiness on the matter of language, perhaps because the inability or the disinclination to speak English tended to undermine their conviction that assimilation was an ideal universally shared by those who were to be assimilated."

Hispanics, without apology, refuse to "assimilate," if that means giving up their culture and language. When it comes to breakfast cereal, Hispanics collectively indicated their choice would be determined by which one advertises in Spanish: Post Raisin Bran or Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Corporate America listened.

Proof? Pick up the phone and call any customer service number and you are likely to hear, "Press one to continue in English," followed by "Oprima dos para español."

Welcome to the United States de América!

The lesson is obvious: the spread of Spanish throughout the United States, in fact, is consistent with Adam Smith's "invisible hand." Said Smith, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities, but of their advantages."

Corporate America cannot be faulted for attempting to secure a competitive edge by reaching out to customers in their language of choice. In a market economy, the seller speaks the language of the buyer, whether the buyer seeks a seat on an airplane for a cross-country flight, or life insurance.

We are, in fact, in the midst of a linguistic "crisis," as Spanish spreads and English remains in denial. (Consider this tantalizing fact: More New Yorkers get their news in Spanish from Jorge Ramos on "Noticiero Univision" than in English from Dan Rather on "The CBS Evening News.") From New York to Los Angeles, from Miami to Seattle, government is struggling to provide civil servants who speak Spanish – from police officers to social workers, from librarians to motor vehicle department clerks.

The last time language challenged America this way was in the 18th century.  At that time, the Founding Fathers debated whether to make English or German the "official" language and, unable to decide, declined to make a choice, thus passing the buck onto us.

Yet, there comes a point when politics has to ratify economics. Until then, corporate America will continue to address, and seek to profit from, the greatest domestic reality of the 21st century: America the Bilingual.


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