The moment I heard Spanish being spoken at the inauguration, the following tweet from Upworthy showed up on my feed:
UH OH! Benediction included spanish. A million xenophobic heads just exploded into irrational fear. #inauguration
— Upworthy (@Upworthy) January 21, 2013
I was ready for the backlash to begin.
America is decaying!
Patriots, let us storm the White House, our language is being threatened!
Spanish is an affront to our English-only nation!
I was 100% sure that FOX News would have been ready to pounce on this linguistic insult to the country. NADA. Even the other usual suspects were low-key. Breitbart ran a tame wire story about “Obama’s Hispanic Accent,” while the ever-annoying Twitchy couldn’t even run a story about what Twitter was saying about the Spanish because Twitter was silent. Even the US English page issued no statement condemning the act.
¿Entonces qué pasó? So what happened? I was so ready to mix it up with those who claim that our monolingualism represents true Americanism and national pride. I was ready to go battle those who would claim that King Obama was now forcing us to speaking in two languages.
The lack of digital outrage is quite telling. Are things indeed changing? Maybe we as a country are turning a corner and realizing that we should be celebrating the fact that the United States has over 35 million Spanish speakers, with predictions that we will be the world’s biggest Spanish-speaking nation by 2050.
Or, and I suspect that this is more the case, maybe those who were quick to push for a monolingual society and the nativist subtext such a position espouses are finally reading the tea leaves (yes that pun was intended, Tea Party). The conventional wisdom is clear: our country is more diverse, both linguistically and culturally.
While Democrats continue to push the optics of a diverse society, Republicans are still having optics issues. It’s no wonder that in December former House Speaker and GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich wrote in a letter to fellow Republicans that the party would face a “bleak future” if the party did not begin go through a profound change. As Gingrich said, “There is a combination of demographic trends, cultural changes, technological breakthroughs and intelligent, disciplined application of resources which could turn America into a national version of Chicago or California.”
Nonetheless, optics are just one part of the message. The symbolism of seeing Spanish spoken at an inauguration without question made many U.S. Latinos proud. There was a sense that many are now at the political table, and seeing Justice Sonia Sotomayor swear in Vice President Biden only enhanced that narrative.
Yet the pomp and ceremony ended yesterday. Today the real legislative work begins. Will the Obama administration follow through on issues that U.S. Latino voters have deemed important, such as comprehensive immigration reform? Will we see prominent Latinos filling vacant Cabinet positions? Will the Republicans truly embrace Gingrich’s advice to transform themselves? Or will they be forever stuck in 2010?
All the Spanish in the world won’t diffuse the fact that both Democrats and Republicans have not fully fulfilled the expectations of U.S. Latino voters. The image of Obama as the country’s Deporter-in-Chief is still real in the eyes of many, and Republicans’ cluelessness about the Latino vote has become a running joke. This all needs to change.
So, gracias for the Spanish, Washington. I will leave you with this one final thought: Somos lo que hacemos, no lo que pensamos ni lo que sentimos. We are defined by what we do, not by what we think or what we feel.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.