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On language and defiance: a Q & A with Ilan Stavans

We caught up with Ilan Stavans, Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies, to discuss his recent New York Times editorial, the use of the Spanish language in the United States, and why Spanish isn’t a foreign language in the US.

You recently published a New York Times op-ed called “Trump, the Wall and the Spanish Language,” in which you suggest that “the Spanish language in the United States has suddenly become a tool of defiance.” Could you explain this further?

The Trump Administration has taken down from the White House official website all references to Spanish. This to me is another symptom of its anti-globalist views. Spanish is not only the second language of the United States. It is also a window to a rich, multifaceted, essential aspect of the nation’s history. By censoring Spanish, my impression is that the Trump Administration is promoting a version of American history that fits into the president’s political base but not into reality.

You also argue in favor of multilingualism.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is, by definition, multilingual. Of course, our relationship with the English language is a singular one. This is our glue, the meeting ground, what binds us together. Assimilation to American culture is about learning English. And we regularly toy with the idea of an official language. A few states have endorsed that idea but—fortunately, in my opinion—not the country as a whole. Whereas monolingualism traps us in our on selves, multilingualism connects people to other cultures. In the past American presidents have been polyglots. To give you one example: Calvin Coolidge, who graduated from Amherst College, translated Cicero and Dante and in his spare time read works in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian. Donald Trump, in contrast, is trapped in the English language. Given the current climate, I believe learning a foreign language today is an act of resistance.

800px-Ccoolidge
Official Presidential portrait of Calvin Coolidge by Charles Sydney Hopkinson, 1932. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet you don’t believe Spanish is a foreign language in the United States?

No, it isn’t. If you look at the numbers across the Spanish-speaking world, there are more Latinos in the United States—56.6 million—than the entire population of Spain. Of those, an estimated 41 million who speak Spanish (the states with the most density are New Mexico, California, Texas, and Arizona) and another 11 million who are bilingual. Actually, Spanish has been in the Americas since before the United States was founded. Therefore, calling it foreign is an act of historical sanitation.

By the way, I not only believe that the White House website should immediately restore its Spanish-language side. In fact, it should add other languages as well. That would be a fitting tribute to our multifacetedness. Multiplicity isn’t a threat; it is an asset.

It isn’t only about language, though. Such is Trump’s disdain for the truth (this is an administration that has put forth concepts like “alternative facts”), I’m convinced that scholarship as such, in and of itself, is also a form of rebellion. This includes the bibliographical work we are doing in Latino Studies. By cataloguing the past, we are calling attention to its depth and complexity.

And one more thought. I find sustenance in the fact that the New York Times op-ed mentioned before started in the newspaper’s Spanish-language site: “Trump, la muralla y el español.” While the White House seeks to narrow our linguistic dimensions, the media in the United States is more cosmopolitan.

How about the argument that cosmopolitanism has led to elitism?

This is a crucial point. The tension at the heart of America now is between moving inwards and looking outwards. These shouldn’t be in opposition. The local and the universal must live in dialectical harmony. It is true that in the quest to be cosmopolitan a few of us might have forgotten to look at parts of our own country. The answer is to refocus our attention: not to give up cosmopolitanism but to recalibrate it. Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of learning foreign languages at the expense of one’s own native tongue. Multilingualism works best when the various languages coexist, nurturing one another rather than eclipsing each other.

To play devil’s advocate, do languages in contact end up in a state of contamination?

Nothing that is human is pure. Contamination—better called “cross-fertilization”—is a fixture of life.

Featured image credit: President-elect Donald Trump speaking in Hershey, Pennsylvania by Michael Vadon. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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