I almost fell out of my chair when I heard former House Speaker Newt Gingrich state children should speak English and not "the language of the ghetto." Gingrich said this to reinforce his point that bilingual education should be abolished in the United States. Gingrich even appeared on television speaking Spanish in an attempt to quell the storm brewing around his comments. While discussion and disagreement about language and how children should learn English is valid, Gingrich's attempt to stem bilingual education by describing Spanish as "ghetto" is a blatant attempt to demoralize a significant portion of this country‘«‹s residents. Dubbing Spanish, or any other non-English language, as "ghetto" is tantamount to economic oppression.
As the architect of the 1994 Republican Congressional takeover, Gingrich coordinated Republican campaigns and taught Republicans techniques to manipulate the media in order to take control of Congress. Gingrich is savvy in the use of the media as a political tool and when he came up with his ghetto language platform, he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that by offending Latino sensibilities, he would gain ground among the core of the Republican Party, especially in early primary states. Gingrich‘«‹s speech was designed to use Latinos to test his political platform to assist him in deciding whether to make a run for the presidency.
Gingrich, like former California Governor Pete Wilson has probably caused Latinos to reflect on our role in American society and how it might change. Wilson's anti-immigrant policies led millions of Latinos to fear their legal status and thus immediately apply for citizenship. Gingrich‘«‹s comments will not go away in a day, week or month, but will be entrenched in the Latino mind, because they hit a nerve. The core discussion left by the comment is how Latinos view the use of language and what it means to us.
Those of us with children understand the dilemma. As first generation Latinos, my wife and I speak to our children in Spanish. However, they speak and read perfect English and interact with friends in both languages. Essentially, they live in a bilingual world that includes watching the novela La Fea and the cartoon Handy Manny. We designed it this way because we both know the personal and professional benefits that being bilingual brings.
The professional implications of being bilingual in our economy are simple. You either speak Spanish or you don't move forward in certain sectors. From travel and entertainment to construction and manufacturing, speaking Spanish is mandatory in a globalized economy. As international commerce continues to grow in breadth and speed, the ability to communicate in multiple languages is not a luxury, but a necessity. If Gingrich had wanted to be helpful, he would have acknowledged this reality and urged Latinos to increase English proficiency, while maintaining Spanish. To advocate for speaking one language instead of maintaining bilingualism not only stratifies our society in a caste-like manner, but also disenfranchises those who would have an increased skill-set by maintaining their bilingualism. The effect of Gingrich's plan was to simultaneously ostracize large segments of our society and to decrease their future earning power by eradicating a highly sought after skill.
While I've never heard Latinos regret learning English, I have heard them regret not being taught Spanish. I've even heard non-Latinos regret their parents not teaching them Spanish and have encountered non-Latinos teaching their children Spanish. There is no need to defend learning English. Most countries in the world have their populations learning English in one way or another. The world has become smaller due to rapid communication and multilingualism, yet Mr. Gingrich has framed bilingualism among Latinos not as an asset, but as a liability.
Gingrich's comments come from a generation that saw limited global competition. Ten years ago, no nation challenged the economic superiority of the United States. China and India were mere footnotes in trade. Realities are now different and in order to compete globally, linguistic diversity of every kind will need to be a priority. Every demographer knows Latino children of today will be the workforce of tomorrow. Mr. Gingrich may rationalize that he is not going to get the Latino vote anyway, so it is fair to use them as some bizarre litmus test for the Republican machine. Not only is this not fair, it is divisive and short-sighted.
The past eighteen months have seen nationwide debates on immigration and immigration reform. Progress in these debates will only be made when true understanding is desired by both sides of the issue. Mr. Gingrich does not speak from a position of understanding, let alone authority, and his comments have permeated the Latino community making them more resistant to Republican attempts at dialogue. It is time to make progress in absolving this country‘«‹s ambivalence towards immigration and this progress needs to be rooted in a sincere, open-minded approach to the issue. We need not fear diversity, but embrace it as part of our national strategy.
What do you think?
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Gabriel Buelna is Executive Director, Plaza Community Center, faculty member - Chicana/o Studies Department at CSUN, and appears on KMEX 34 and Telemundo 52. Receive articles via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org