Bonnie Urciuoli reflects on her new co-edited volume, The Spanish Language in the United States

The Spanish Language in the United States: Racialization, Rootedness, and Resistance, edited By José A. Cobas, Bonnie Urciuoli, Joe Feagin, Daniel J. Delgado, has just been released by Routledge. The project was initiated by Cobas, who stressed the importance of bringing together in one edited volume, the socially rooted nature of Spanish in the U.S., how it has been racialized, and how that racialization has been resisted by its speakers. Hence the volume’s emphasis on the intersection of racialization, rootedness, and resistance in ways not previously dealt with; hence also the volume’s focus on the importance of seeing these processes in relation to the long history of U.S. relations with its Spanish-speaking periphery: its quasi-colonial relations with Mexico and its flatly colonial relations with Puerto Rico.  These concerns come out of previous collaborative writing projects. Cobas, Feagin, and Delgado, along with Maria Chávez, edited the Latino Peoples in the New America: Racialization and Resistance. Cobas and Feagin, both sociologists, have collaborated on multiple works on race and whiteness; Feagin is well known for his work on the white racial frame. With the focus on language in this volume, Cobas invited Urciuoli on board as co-editor.  

This book shows how English became the invisible background and racialized Spanish the visibly marked foreground figure, a process rooted in fifteenth century European colonial expansion and its involvement in the African slave trade. Although Spanish speakers in the U.S. come from a wide range of countries, the U.S. racialization of Spanish-speakers grows specifically from its resulting political, economic, and social relations with Mexico and Puerto Rico. This racialization is a sociohistorical process that takes place when a social group maintains a position of structural dominance (social, legal, political) over another group or groups on the basis of supposedly natural and inherited signs of inferiority. Such signs of difference may be physically visible (skin, hair, facial features), non-visible but assumed (intelligence, character), behavioral (language) and so on; in that sense, such signs of difference are racialized. Once race is assumed, any such signs may be imputed; indeed, racialized people are often assumed, in the absence of material evidence, to have a darker skin tone or a foreign accent. The privileged group uses such signs and their imputed meaning to justify the denial of belonging or participation, oppressing and containing people displaying such signs, especially through use of force. In the United States, those claiming racial privilege have defined themselves as white, and have defined the racially unprivileged in terms of the conditions through which the privileged came into contact with them: as slaves and slave descendants, indigenous people, inhabitants of what had been Spanish colonies, indentured and exploited labor. Hence the white racial frame that assumes white possession of such superior traits as an attractive phenotype, superior language, high morality, intelligence, work ethic, and restrained sexuality and fertility while subordinate racial groups have opposite and inferior traits.

This is what racialization is all about: the mismatch of historical and social reality on the one hand and powerfully held naturalized assumptions on the other. It operates not only through bright lines, but also through misrecognitions and loose alignments, ignoring some things and exaggerating or inventing others, pulling them together in affective associations that routinely overpower facts that are under people’s noses. Realities lose definition and disappear before sets of associations in which the racist gaze seeks a coherence that validates its assumption of power. If the markedness of blackness echoes a past of slavery, in which African-descended people were regarded only as appropriated labor, the markedness of colonized Puerto Ricans and Mexicans (and by extension other Western hemisphere descendants of Spanish settlement) were marked as inhabitants of extensive real estate acquired through conquest, the proper function of which was the enhancement of white U.S. wealth. What the Mexican and Puerto Rican colonial projects did was set the terms for the racialization of Spanish: speakers of Spanish are foreign, dangerous, and invasive, and so is Spanish. Puerto Ricans and Mexicans came to occupy a position of oppressed markedness just short of blackness and by association so generally do Spanish speakers, and Spanish. The realities of their former situation, the events that brought them into the U.S. orbit, the nature of their current lives, and the varieties of Spanish that they speak disappear in the face of whites’ racialized fantasies of language that play out in multiple ways including as public performance by self-styled language police. In the volume’s first chapter, Cobas and Feagin use Bourdieu’s take on the economics of linguistic exchange to examine the assumed authority and unchallenged exercise of whiteness through English and the social dynamics through which the place of Spanish is kept firmly subordinate and silenced, while keeping Anglo language power invisible behind an ideology of language standardization with Spanish accents a particular target. The remaining book chapters provide ethnographic perspectives on rootedness, racialization, and resistance.

The rootedness section opens with the historical, sociological, and language realities of U.S. Spanish in Rosina Lozano’s chapter, “The Early Political History of Spanish in the United States.” Spanish occupied colonial, indigenous, and immigrant since the U.S. began and, in some regions, long before English. Here we see the social and historical realities of Spanish political, economic, legal, and media legitimacy in contrast to white fantasies about English. In “The demography of Latino Spanish speakers in the United States,” Rogelio Sáenz and David Mamani lay out quantitative evidence for structural inequalities affecting Spanish speakers. Pointing out the sheer (and still growing) size of the U.S. Spanish-speaking population and noting their diverse nations of origin, they draw a detailed picture of social and geographical factors shaping Spanish rootedness and retention.

The problem of racialization – in which those realities of rootedness are ignored, reconstructed, or vociferously denied – is taken up in the next section. In “What anti-Spanish Prejudice Tells Us About Whiteness,” Bonnie Urciuoli examines the racialized imagining of Spanish from the perspective of U.S. whiteness, and what that says about white beliefs about race and language. In “A Language-elsewhere: A Friendlier Linguistic Terrorism,” Michael Mena describes a terrorism “friendlier” than that of Spanish as deficient, wrong, and so on, in his description of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley program that aligns a standardized, raceless Spanish with a neoliberal skill set disconnected from indexes of students’ own social realities and only obtainable through the university. The experience and nature of racialization projected onto Spanish speakers is explored by Alessandra Rosa, Elizabeth Aranda, and Hilary Dotson in their chapter, “‘You are not Allowed to Speak Spanish! This is an American Hospital!’” in which unfair treatment connected to accent also correlates with darker skin, education level, marital status, and place of birth, converging in a racialized perception of “accent” as judgment not simply of language but of speakers themselves. In “Black Spanish, White Leanings, Trigueño Mythologies in Puerto Rico,” Michelle Ramos Pelicia and Sharon Elise shift the critical gaze from English to Spanish, deploy a critical sociolinguistic approach that illustrates Spanish’s own European colonial legacy, showing uses of Puerto Rican Spanish discourse that can bring into being and naturalize the social category of blackness.

The final section documents strategies of resistance to the racialization of Spanish. Kevin Alejandrez and Ana S.Q. Liberato, in “The Enchantment of Language Resistance in Puerto Rico,” trace the policies and legislation through which American colonial administrators from 1898 tried to instantiate English in Puerto Rican institutional life as a mechanism of control and sign of loyalty, policies and legislation that were resisted and ultimately failed. In “Subtracting Spanish and Forcing English: My Lived Experience in Texas Public Schools,” José Angel Gutiérrez describes his acquisition of a Mexican American activist consciousness from childhood in Cristal (Crystal City), Texas (home of the La Raza Unida political party which Gutiérrez co-founded) where the white teachers and administrators in the segregated school system systematically and often punitively disvalued Spanish and every other aspect of being from Mexico.

Throughout the book, readers see how racialized language ideologies (like other ideologies of race) depend on loosely affiliated notions that reinforce the perspective of privileged whites played out in attacks on Spanish speakers, oppressive language policies in business and education, even neoliberally disguised as a Spanish from nowhere with nothing to do with racial outsiders, sending the message that if one were not born white, one should learn to act white and not do things pointing to one’s racial otherness.  

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