Most people know I can be found at any given point of the day speaking with my mom on the phone — in Spanish. We check in with each other several times a day, a tradition that we created nearly four years ago to deal with the distance between us.
But a new video in which an angry white man harassed two women because they were speaking Spanish — in Midtown Manhattan, of all places — brought on a creeping fear that’s haunted me for a long time: What if that happened to me? As a white-passing Latina, the color of my skin affords me protection that Brown and Black Latinxs don’t have. But for those of us who speak Spanish in public? It feels like our language puts a target on our backs.
I wish these occurrences didn’t make me paranoid, but the increase in hate crimes in the last years would give anyone pause, particularly since we’ve seen some harassment incidents escalate enough to warrant arrests. The possibility that something like this would happen has been a cause of concern for my loved ones, too.
“Every time you start speaking Spanish on the phone or with someone, I take stock of our surroundings,” my partner Mack told me, recalling a time a woman jerked herself away from us when she heard me on the phone. At the time I didn’t realize, but he did. “She snarled and shook her head,” is how he described the woman’s reaction when he finally told me about it. I’ve asked if he’s sure that her behavior was related to me speaking Spanish. He’s convinced. “It’s like she was thinking: This is America. Speak English.”
Yes, English is the de facto language of the U.S. And while it isn’t recognized as such at the federal level, 31 states have laws making it the official language. But English is just one of at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes, and Spanish is the second most common language in the country. (Spanish was also spoken in what we know as the States long before English.)
Though he doesn’t dwell on it, the thought of me being harassed for speaking my first language crosses Mack’s mind now and then. He said: “I often wonder, ‘Where can you be safe to speak Spanish?'”
Truth is, it has never been safe to speak other languages in the U.S. While it might seem like these incidents happen in part because of the the current administration’s tones of nationalism and xenophobia, these bouts of racism predate President Donald Trump.
The history of this country and its obsession with being English-only is inextricably tied to white, Anglo supremacy. Just take stock of its past: Native American children being forcibly sent to English-only boarding schools, how the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 only allowed highly-educated migrants with knowledge of the language, segregating Mexican children from white children in schools because the former “couldn’t” speak English.
About 79% of those who speak a so-called foreign language at home are also proficient in English.
In recent decades, we’ve seen this type of xenophobia flourish everywhere from restaurants to department stores and even state legislatures. For Pamela Granda, her experience being harassed happened sometime around 2010.
“My mom and I were on line at a McDonald’s in Newark, NJ,” she told me. “We were having a conversation in Spanish and the man in front of us turns back and says, ‘It’s because of you people that there are no damn jobs in this country!'”
She continued: “We tried to reason with him by asking what he meant by ‘you people’ to which he responded, ‘Spanish-speaking motherfuckers.’ I could see where he was going so I told him there was nothing wrong with two American citizens speaking another language. My mom and I continued our conversation — in Spanish.”
Granda said it’s important for people to learn English if the live in the U.S., but that shouldn’t preclude them from feeling free to speak their native tongue. Most people living in the U.S. do both: Studies have found that about 79% of those who speak a “so-called” foreign language at home are also proficient in English.
In some instances, employees are the ones who feel free to harass customers for speaking another language. When Sophia Melissa Caraballo Piñeiro’s mom came to visit her in Syracuse, NY in time for her graduation, she relied on her daughter because she doesn’t speak English. That opened them up to being harassed at a Dollar Tree store.
“One specific employee, a white man, crossed our paths at least five times. Each time, he would hear us speaking Spanish, he would stare intently and then mumble something under his breath,” Caraballo Piñeiro told me.
As they were getting ready to leave the store, the man approached them and started yelling at them. “[He was] saying that we shouldn’t be speaking Spanish, that we should speaking English and that we should go back to wherever we came from,” she said.
He was clearly okay with putting his job in jeopardy.
The experience shook her.
“I was furious and terrified,” she said. “We were in this man’s territory and I didn’t know what he could do to us after he had the guts to yell at us at his workplace. He was clearly okay with putting his job in jeopardy to make us feel bad.”
The fact he followed them around the store and came across as someone who might get physical was the scariest part for Caraballo Piñeiro. The threat of physical violence is not imaginary, either. In 2015, for example, a Somali immigrant was hit with a beer mug for speaking Swahili with her family at a Minnesota Applebee’s.
I received no shortage of stories from other people who have been harassed for speaking another language.
“My youngest sister was asked to not speak Spanish at all in school with her Latinx friends. The teacher said Spanish was only allowed at Spanish class,” Alejandra Rivera from Houston, TX told me. “My dad was completely ignored at a hospital when a healthcare provider heard him speak Spanish. … This happens way more often than it should.”
Twitter user Samantha Loreto sent me this direct message: “My mom and I were in Brooklyn waiting for her cousin to pick us up. We were talking in Spanish and a white dude started yelling at us and said something along the lines of ‘I hate all this international fucking people, once and for all, go home.'”
For a country built by immigrants that prides itself in being the land of the free and the home of the brave, the United States surely still has a massive problem with allowing people to freely speak their native tongue. Though the people who harass these foreign language speakers might not be the majority, they surely are loud. In 2018, maybe it’s time que se callen la boca.
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