“Speak English” and Other Demands of US National Identity

“Speak English” and Other Demands of US National Identity

In June of 2018 a lawyer was videoed yelling at the employees of a restaurant for speaking Spanish with their customers. The employees had done nothing but respond to a Spanish-speaking customer in Spanish, a deed apparently so offensive as to warrant a public outburst. The lawyer’s recorded response to hearing Spanish spoken in his vicinity was to yell at the employees that “they should be speaking English […] my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country.” His comment demonstrates the erroneous correlation of the ability to speak English with belonging, making the harmful assumption that any foreign language means a “foreign” body. In fact, videos like these that surface every year in my news feed continue to demonstrate an exclusive US national identity despite the diverse reality of the US. While Spanish is not the only targeted language in the fight to maintain a false identity, in the face of border disputes between the US and Mexico, the separation of Latinx children from their parents, and the death of children immigrating to the US, the underlying politicization of language as a tool to exclude the Latinx community from national identity needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, the lawyer’s rhetoric has a long history both in US and in global contexts. To produce cultural homogeny, the British Empire banned teaching Irish in colonized Ireland until 1871. In the 1800s this same tactic was used as a tool to force the assimilation of the Native American peoples in the US, part of which was to force abandonment of their native languages in favor of English. More recently in 1937, under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic utilized language in the Perejil Massacre to determine national identity. Language was the arbitrary measurement of life and death—pronounce Perejil (Parsley) with a Haitian accent instead of a Dominican one and you were killed for not trilling an r. Language has a long history of being a tool for restricting national identity and the relationship between English and Spanish is a contemporary manifestation. English is used as an exclusionary tool with which to define national identity, but this time mobilized against Spanish speakers—a reflection of the current political climate that attempts to define US identity as incompatible with Latinx identity in order to promote border policies.

The correlation of language to identity is what is at stake on a national level in the tolerance or admonishing of the lawyer’s words. Language does not act as a neutral force and it is this that Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicanx author, addresses in her book The Borderlands: La Frontera. Her book operates as part memoir, essay, and poem recounting her personal challenges in defining her own Chicanx identity. In much of her writing, Anzaldúa draws on the long history between the US and Mexico starting with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which granted the US land including California, New Mexico, and Arizona. With changing boundary lines, those who had previously been Mexican found themselves situated within the US. With a new national identity thrust upon them, there was also a legal system to navigate in English—a barrier that enabled land to be taken without consequences.

With her unique perspective, Anzaldúa describes what is at stake in the censure of language saying, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language” (Anzaldúa 81). Anzaldúa equates the linguistic with both individual identity and cultural identity in her claim; the lawyer’s attack on Spanish was not just an attack on the language but an attack on the cultural and individual identity. With current border disputes with Mexico, Latinx identity is defined as the antithesis to US identity—a definition achieved through the racialization of Spanish. Language itself is contextually racialized since a white Spanish speaker would not face the same assumptions of illegality, just as speakers of European languages, such as French and German, are not told to “speak English.” Held within the lawyer’s outraged comments and immigration politics is a racialization of the Spanish language and therefore Latinx identity that places it outside the definition of US national identity.  

Unsurprisingly, the First Amendment is often cited in media and conversation as a legal justification for the construction of a national identity based on racial and cultural exclusion. The protection of speech and expression is co-opted by white culture to enforce exclusionary rhetoric. However, Anzaldúa challenges US complacency with exclusions of identity and reclaims the First Amendment, arguing that, “Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancó la lengua” (“The Anglo with the innocent face yanked our tongue”; my trans.; Anzaldúa 76). By citing the first amendment right to free speech, Anzaldúa correlates the illegal censorship of language with the censorship of accepted identities within the US. Through this she demonstrates the already present legal status that Chicanx language and identity hold. The status of Spanish, and therefore the cultural and racial identity tied to it, is then corroborated by the fact that the US currently does not have an official national language. There is no legal reason for English to be tied to US identity. So, although legally the US practices an inclusive national identity, culturally the definition of US national identity—which has often been the dominant narrative of the melting pot—is still restricted linguistically.

By equalizing Spanish with English and refusing to accommodate the English speaker, Anzaldúa disrupts the power dynamics that place English above Spanish. With Spanish she addresses the US’ neglect of law and challenges the mask of innocence that the culture hides behind. It is not the law that causes violence against identity, but the Anglo or white culture that limits the equal application of the law. So, when the lawyer says “they should be speaking English” it is not a simple question of which language is legally spoken, but further entrenches a national identity that does not include Spanish speakers. Anzaldúa’s work removes the mask of innocence from the perpetrators who claim that language is neutral while enacting violence against those they deem outside the scope of belonging. By challenging the legality of this and inserting an equalized Spanish, Anzaldúa’s work gives validity to Chicanx identity within US national identity.

Language not only defines national identity, but directly influences the individual’s sense of belonging and self. The attack on Spanish becomes an invalidation of personal identity since, as Anzaldúa  says, “until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. […] as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate” (Anzaldúa 81). How language is treated impacts the pride and legitimacy of individual identity and belonging and reveals an embedded power dynamic. Anzaldúa recognizes the position English holds as superior to Spanish with the repercussion that even a remnant of Mexican identity is defined as endangering individual belonging and success within US society. Speaking English becomes an identity which cannot exist in the same body as a Mexican identity exists. Until the restaurant employees and customers are free to express themselves in Spanish without accommodating a belligerent lawyer, there will not be true freedom of expression. 

This correlation of foreign languages with “foreign” bodies endures within the US in the comments that assume an illegal immigration status of anyone who speaks Spanish. Anzaldúa offers hope within the current system and states that if there can be a change to how the US conceptualizes language, there can be a shift in how the US conceptualizes belonging nationally and individually. By recognizing the power of language in shaping individual and cultural identity we can work to dismantle the structures in place that politicize it and utilize it as a tool of exclusion.

Holly Lackey.jpg

About the author: Holly Lackey is an honors student at Seattle Pacific University studying English Literature and Social Justice and Cultural Studies. In her time away from classes she enjoys finding new places to travel to.

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