Ilan Stavans: Trump, the Wall and the Spanish Language

The New York Times, Jan 30, 2017

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Children outside of La Luz Del Mundo Christian Church in the Polytechnic Heights neighborhood of District 90 in Fort Worth, Tex. last year. Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times        

Amherst, Mass. — In an emblematic essay called “The Wall and the Books,” the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote about Shih Huang Ti (also known as Qin Shi Huang), the Chinese emperor who in 220-206 B.C. built the original Great Wall of China. In his essay Borges points out that the same emperor who implemented the project also banned all books from the kingdom. His intention was clear: The wall was meant to defend his people against enemy incursions; and the burning of all literature announced that all memory of the past needed to be erased. History for Shih Huang Ti started with him.

President Trump is looking more and more like an emperor these days. The decision by his administration to bring down the Spanish-language side of the White House website is an egregious attack against an essential aspect of today’s America. And next comes the wall he has ordered along the United States-Mexican border.

Ours, after all, is a multilingual culture. And in the last few decades, the Spanish language has become unquestionably one of the most significant in that plurality. It is the second most used tongue in the land, with about 38 million speakers. In the context of the Hispanic world, Spanish speakers in the United States are the fifth largest community after Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Argentina. Such is its ubiquity that calling it foreign no longer seems logical.

The president is nefariously monolingual. At the beginning of the Republican primary, Mr. Trump admonished Jeb Bush for speaking in the native tongue of his wife, Columba, a Mexican-American. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” he said.

Barack Obama speaks some Indonesian and George W. Bush is conversational in Spanish. Bill Clinton understands German. The further back we go in time, the more polyglot our leaders become: Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke French and German, as did his uncle Teddy. The list of United States presidents with knowledge of Greek and Latin is substantial. And then there’s Thomas Jefferson, who was fluent in Greek and Latin as well as Italian, French and Spanish. A role model. Or perhaps an endangered species.

Mr. Trump is not only among the most limited of this bunch. He also appears to be allergic to foreign languages, especially Spanish. The list of his misuses during the presidential campaign is, in and of itself, infamous, including expressions like “bad hombres.”

Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump’s press secretary and a man also not known for his subtleties, announced recently that the disappearance of all Spanish is temporary and said technicians are working on updating the content. “It will take awhile longer,” he added.

While this is to be hoped, the sheer decision to vanish what was on display during the Obama administration sends a clear signal. This is the same strategy that may be used against Obamacare: first repeal, then … we’ll see! In other words, discard what’s in use in order to start from scratch, on your own terms, as if the past was of little importance.

Under Mr. Obama, the White House kept a Spanish-language blog, too. In fact, President Obama himself tweeted en español on Jan. 13: “Gracias por todo. Mi último pedido es el mismo que el primero. Que creas, no en mi capacidad de crear cambio, sino en la tuya.” (“Thanks for everything. My last wish is the same as the first. That you believe not in my capacity for change, but in yours.”)

Of course, language can thrive in adverse circumstances. Spanish is already a magisterial economic force in the United States. It is the most frequently taught foreign language on college campuses. Likewise, Latinos are the only minority ever to have two full-fledged TV networks in their own immigrant tongue, Univision and Telemundo. Spanish radio is enormously influential in political terms. And I’m referring here only to culture. At the corporate level, investment in the Spanish-language market is among the most vigorous in the nation.

Mr. Trump ought to know all this. Yet he feigns ignorance, such is his disdain for Latinos. His team doesn’t have a single prominent Latino. He seldom talks of Latin America in his geopolitical plans, except when he talks about Mexico, which he sees as a nest of criminals.

My feeling is that the efforts to suppress Spanish have the opposite effect. It will increasingly be seen as a language of resistance, which will only help its cause. Mr. Trump won the election in a crusade against globalization. Now that he is in power, the rationale against isolationism needs to be made even sharper. The Spanish language is the perfect place to start. From Florida to the Southwest, it is in the substratum of America. A large portion of our land started in Spanish, just as a substantial portion of our population lives in it. Spanish is also a bridge to our southern neighbors. Globalization starts in the kitchen, the classroom, the street — it starts by recognizing our multifaceted heritage in the mirror.

Actually, there is a lesson in the resistance Latin Americans engaged in as they navigated dictatorships in the darkest moments of the 20th century: It was often through language — in protest songs, storytelling and poetry — that they kept freedom alive. Thanks to Mr. Trump, the Spanish language in the United States has suddenly become a tool of defiance.

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