Anti Latinu/Anti Spanish Attacks and Anthro-Political Linguistics

This article marks the final piece in a three-part series on language policing which has appeared in the Society for Linguistic Anthropology section news column over the summer.

Recent reports about racially fueled mass murders and the increasing number of hate crimes targeting Latinus (the universal “u” is gender neutral, while respecting Spanish phonology) other immigrants, and people of color in general, have walked a thin line concerning the extent to which comments made by President Trump have contributed to the climate of intolerance and the violence it spawns. Even before being elected, Trump said at least “nine outrageous things about Latinos,” referring to them as criminals, drug addicts, killers, and rapists.

During the campaign, Trump’s verbal abuse included chastising opponent Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish: “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a “national outbreak of hate” after his election, citing 867 incidents in the first 10 days. Most attacks were against Latinus; anti-Latinu hate crime increased 176 percent in major US cities in the three weeks after the election. The numbers are not reliable; for every hate crime reported, many go unreported by immigrants who fear the police and/or border patrol officers.

Can linguistic anthropology help us understand and challenge linguistic and racial profiling?

The old saying “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never harm me” is belied by many of the Trump administration’s harmful policies. His references to “animals,“ infestation,” and “invasion” accompanied bans on immigrants from Muslim countries, the disavowal of asylum seekers, the separation of immigrant families, and the incarceration of their children. In 2017, Trump pardoned Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had routinely raided restaurants where Spanish was being spoken. Although a federal judge ruled that Arpaio “systematically singled out Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols”; Arpaio is running for the office of sheriff again in 2020. El pueblo repudiates Trump’s insults; a restaurant in Mexico advertised the Donald Trump Taco with the following ingredients: “Mucha lengua, poco seso, y trompita de marrano” (“Lotta tongue, little brain, and tiny pig snout”).

Can linguistic anthropology help us understand and challenge linguistic and racial profiling? In 2001, Bonnie Urciuoli explained how race had been remapped from biology onto language because both bodies and languages were assumed to have inferior and superior varieties with naturally attributed intellectual traits, and some varieties were considered invasive. Accordingly, while racial insults lodged in the body (for example, about a person’s color or hair or facial/physical features) were being condemned (if the microphone was on), and led to the dismissal of sports team owners and others, slurs and mistreatment of speakers of non-standard or foreign-sounding English or those who dared to speak another language were tolerated because of the assumption, central to US linguistic ideology, that individuals can and should control what languages they know and how they use them. The title of Jonathan Rosa’s recent book, Looking Like a Language, Sounding Like a Race captures “the co-naturalization of race and language” at a Chicago high school.

Nationwide, realtors rejected potential renters who sounded African American or Latinu, customers demanded that clerks who spoke Spanish to co-workers or other customers be fired, business owners posted English-only regulations, and telephone operators were commanded to speak English-only (see Zentella 2014). Today, outspoken hostility and physical aggression based on racial and/or linguistic grounds seem equally acceptable. Violent abuses include: a woman brutally assaulted for speaking Swahili in an Applebee’s restaurant in Minnesota, and a bus driver in Idaho who threw water on an 8th grader for speaking Spanish. Threats are common: a New York City lawyer yelled “My next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country” when referring to Spanish speaking restaurant staff,  a border patrol agent in Montana detained two US citizens for speaking Spanish, Puerto Rican health care workers in Florida were ordered to stop speaking Spanish or be fired, and an eavesdropping stranger told a Puerto Rican member of the US Air Force, who was having a personal phone conversation, that speaking Spanish in uniform was “distasteful”. According to 2018 FBI data, anti-Hispanic incidents made up around half of all reported ethnic-bias hate crimes since 2004.

Today’s White House website has no response to requests for information in Spanish, no petitions link, and it headlines only five issues: the economy, national security, the budget, immigration, and the opioid crisis.

On Inauguration Day, the Trump administration removed Spanish links to the whitehouse.gov web page, deliberately eliminating vital information for millions of Latinus. In response, the Language and Social Justice Task group of the SLA, which has undertaken many class, community, and online projects to counter linguistic intolerance and hate speech, collected thousands of signatures for a petition urging reinstatement of the Spanish links: “We urge you to reinstate the Spanish links on whitehouse.gov, to confirm that your avowed goal to ‘make America great’ includes the entire nation.”

There was no response from the White House because we did not reach the required 65,000 signatures. But we must persist until we succeed, as we did when we convinced the Census Bureau to stop categorizing non-“excellent” English speakers as “linguistically isolated”, and the Royal Spanish Academy to stop referring to Spanglish as “deforming.” As Pierre Bourdieu reminded us, “the language of authority never governs without the collaboration of those it governs.” It is our responsibility to challenge linguistic intolerance. An anthro-political linguistics demands it, acknowledging that language is always political and justice requires action.

Today’s White House website has no response to requests for information in Spanish, no petitions link, and it headlines only five issues: the economy, national security, the budget, immigration, and the opioid crisis. The contrast between this and the 118 topics listed during Barack Obama’s presidency, including Spanish web links tailored to Latino community interests, demonstrates Trump’s disregard for Latinus. The recent rejection of many thousands seeking legal asylum is the latest attack on our “nation of immigrants” ethos, as is the suggested re-wording of Emma Lazarus’ welcoming poem at the Statue of Liberty, from “Give me your tired and your poor … yearning to be free”  to “[Those ] who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center—noting “hate groups surge during Trump candidacy and presidency”—exposed 1,020 groups, an “all time high in the US”.

There’s lots to do. At the national level, you may request Spanish links on the government website by calling the president’s comment line (202-456-1111), sending an email via the whitehouse.gov contact link, or collecting and mailing signed petitions to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500. And/or, organize against the “visa system overhaul that would prioritize immigrants with advanced degrees, English-language skills and deep pockets.” At the local level, encourage respect for linguistic diversity by celebrating International Mother Language Day (February 21, 2020) and urge libraries and schools to place “Welcome” signs in many languages. At the University of California, San Diego (USCD) and local high schools we will play statements recorded by diverse community members and post QR codes to access them around campus—inspired by the late Misty Jaffe’s effort at California State, Long Beach. In our classes, we can ask students to document examples of linguistic (in)tolerance, language loss, revitalization, and so on, and make those reports widely available (students at UCSD and Swarthmore produced, respectively, “Multilingual San Diego: Portraits of Language Loss and Revitalization,” and “Multilingual Philadelphia: Portraits of Language and Social Justice”). Finally, act on a personal level; in how many languages can you say “Buenos días?” And do you?

Ana Celia Zentella, professor emerita (University of California, San Diego and Hunter College), is an anthro-political linguist recognized for her research on US LatinU languages, language socialization, “Spanglish,” and “English-only” laws.

In 1996, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger declared October 30 “Doctor Ana Celia Zentella Day” for “her leading role in building appreciation for language diversity and respect for language rights.”  In 2015, the Latin American Studies Association’s Latino Section honored Zentella as Public Intellectual of the Year. In 2016, she received the Award for Public Outreach & and Community Service from the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Cite as: Zentella, Ana Celia. 2019. “Anti Latinu/Anti Spanish Attacks and Anthro-Political Linguistics.” Anthropology News website, October 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1279

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