The Danger Of Speaking Spanish In Public

Angela Bassett, left, and Javier Bardem present the award for best foreign language film at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Angela Bassett, left, and Javier Bardem present the award for best foreign language film at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Thanks to Diego Luna, Javier Bardem, Alfonso Cuarón and Trevor Noah, nearly 30 million viewers in the United States and a few hundred million more worldwide heard Spanish and Xhosa in the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony. These nuggets of multilingualism, combined with some historic nominations and awards recipients, made this year’s ceremony fairly inclusive by Academy standards, even if some of the awards raised eyebrows.

There is no doubt that hearing other languages in a major broadcast helps normalize multilingualism in the United States. But even with the Academy’s reputation for staidness, the Oscars are a friendly stage. After all, you wouldn’t expect Alfonso Cuarón to be heckled for saying muchas gracias in his Best Foreign Film acceptance speech. For the 41 million who speak Spanish at home in the U.S., however, speaking Spanish in public is often met with significantly more hostility.

Ever since video of New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg threatening to call ICE on the Fresh Kitchen deli employees because he heard them speaking Spanish went viral, tens of similar videos have come to light. Regardless of the location — a Walmart in Georgia, a grocery store in Colorado, restaurants in VirginiaWest Virginia and Texas; a Fourth of July celebration in California; a road in Texas; a cardiologist’s office in California -- these videos follow a very similar script. Shoppers, workers or bystanders are called out and threatened for speaking Spanish in public — a variation on the refrain “This is America; speak English" — victims take video of the exchange, which goes viral on social media and news coverage of the incident results in an outpouring of support for the victims.

It is easy to dismiss these incidents as nothing more than viral content: tidbits of reassuring indignation that are quickly consumed, shared and forgotten. To be sure, that is a valid critique of our media consumption. In terms of content, though, these videos unmask an ugly truth about everyday life for racialized minorities, whose implications extend beyond the short shelf life of a viral post. Predictably, some of these language vigilantes have tried to offer mealy-mouthed apologies declaring they are not racists. But their actions expose deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiment and racial bias.

Language rights are a question of civil rights. If somebody yells at you “This is America. Speak English,” that’s hate speech. If it crosses the line from hateful language to harassment, that’s a hate crime. True, hateful language by itself does not necessarily constitute a hate crime; however, hate crimes are almost always accompanied by hateful language, as in the case of the Utah man who struck a father and son with a metal pole while shouting “I hate Mexicans” and “I’m here to kill a Mexican.”

There is plenty of verbal violence in those videos in the form of yelling and racial slurs. An implied sense of physical menace is palpable in many of them, to the point where you have to wonder whether the act of recording itself was meant as a deterrent to prevent an escalation. It is easy to imagine these encounters turning violent, as it happened in London in October.

If it feels like these videos are becoming more frequent, that is because hate crimes are up since 2016. They have increased by over 10 percent in the 10 largest cities. About 40 percent of Latinos have experienced some form of harassment, including verbal aggression for speaking Spanish. Statistically, Latinos are more likely to become victims of a hate crime than non-Hispanic whites or African-Americans.

Language rights are a question of civil rights.

Of course, anti-Latino sentiment existed before cell phone video and continues to happen off-camera today. But it is thanks to the testimonial value of the camera that we can document the frequency of hate incidents. When future cultural historians analyze race relations in the 2010s, they will be looking at the now ubiquitous vertical cell-phone videos.

Certainly, English is important for anybody who lives in the United States. However, we can all agree that when someone yells “This is America! Speak English” at Spanish speakers, or urges others to go back to their unprintable country, they are not looking forward to starting a thoughtful dialogue on multilingualism. It is, plain and simple, an act of hate.

What can you do if you witness or suffer harassment or discrimination for using a language other than English? For starters, and if it is safe to do so, document it: take your cell phone out and record the interaction. If not in immediate danger, take a stand and confront the perpetrator. The Human Rights Campaign publishes a guide to what to do if you have been the victim of a crime. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a guide on fighting hate in the community. Anti-immigrant incidents such as language harassment can be reported, no matter how small the incident, to Document Hate.

It is progress that we can hear Spanish in the Oscars and in many of the Oscar-nominated films without batting an eye. It will be even more meaningful progress when Latinos can speak Spanish as freely at a local Walmart as Alfonso Cuarón can on the stage at the Dolby Theater.


Headshot of Roberto Rey Agudo

Roberto Rey Agudo Cognoscenti contributor
Roberto Rey Agudo is Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.



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