Is the Spanish language white? The immigration debate raises vexing issues about how people see race and language

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

As the immigration reform bill hangs in the balance in Congress, it is worth considering the history -- rather, the long histories -- of some of the key issues it tackles. One of them is the status of the Spanish language in the United States and its vexed relationship to the category of whiteness, and to the majority white, English-speaking population.

"White" is shorthand for European-American, but of course it is not so simple: The memories are not too distant of the days when people of Irish, Italian or Jewish descent were discriminated against and considered non-white. But trying to argue that Hispanic-Americans are or are not white actually leads to even more problems and contradictions -- ones that are bound peculiarly to their language.

Spain and Portugal were once the preeminent kingdoms of Europe, and they led the exploration and conquest of the New World. The Golden Age that followed was an era of unprecedented riches for Spain, and its native language went from local to global, as most of the Americas (including much of what is now the United States) became Spanish-speaking lands. It also produced some of the greatest works of world literature, most notably Cervantes's "Don Quixote" (1605). Insofar as Europeanness and whiteness were linked at this time, Spaniards and the Spanish language were at the pinnacle of both.

How this changed is a curious story.

Jealous of the successes of the Spanish in colonizing the New World, the British and the Dutch -- the main northern European empires -- created what is known as the Black Legend. They charged that the Spanish conquistadors were barbaric, brutal villains who impaled babies on stakes or engaged in cannibalism. There was plenty of truth and exaggeration alike in their claims; more to the topic at hand, though, they charged that these acts were a result of Spaniards' "black" blood.

Spain, they pointed out, had been invaded by the Moors of North Africa in the previous centuries, and southern Spain is still characterized as a land of mixed ethnicities, with a deep history of intermarriage among peoples of Iberian, Gothic, Gypsy, Jewish, Berber, Arabic and African descent. (Thus, "Africa begins at the Pyrenees," Napoleon declared.) This "impure blood" led the Spaniards, the northerners asserted, to intermarry widely with the indigenous populations of the Americas, whereas the British and Dutch rarely took native brides.

This prejudice about Spaniards, mixed with anti-Catholic sentiment, was intensified as the Spanish empire declined through the 1800s and as it lost its New World colonies. It has been recycled again recently in the debates about the Eurozone debt crisis, in which Southern Europeans such as Spaniards, Greeks and Italians are taken to be lazy, hotheaded and incompetent.

The English language, meanwhile, ascended as its speakers became the dominant political, military, economic and cultural force in the course of American history. This meant that many other languages that were once prominent in the United States became marginalized, French and German among them.

But while French and German remain languages of high culture, Spanish is, as Newt Gingrich infamously called it, "the language of the ghetto." France and Germany, in short, never had their Europeanness questioned in the way that Spain did, neither during the French brutalities in Algeria nor the Nazis' utter inhumanity. And while the Spanish language remains spoken in the Americas, its speakers and their relationship to white Europeanness were in limbo when the U.S. Census came around -- and I am not referring here to undocumented immigration.

The census did not mention Hispanicity until 1930, when "Mexican" was listed as a category. Franklin Roosevelt amended this in 1940 and declared that Hispanics were white because they were descended from Europeans (Spaniards), regardless of whether the citizens in question were mestizos (mixed-raced Hispanic peoples).

The census barely mentioned this again until the late 20th century, when it drew a distinction between white non-Hispanics and white Hispanics. Hispanicity, in the United States, is officially treated as an ethnicity (a culture) rather than a race (a biological category). That is, if you are white, speaking Spanish as your native language makes you a different sort of white than speaking other European tongues. (There are myriad other complications here: What about Afro-Hispanics or Asian Latinos, for instance?)

The assumption is that someone in Madrid, Spain, and someone in Lima, Peru, share a common culture because they both speak Spanish. This holds as much weight as claiming that someone in Anchorage, Alaska, and someone in Johannesburg, South Africa, share a common culture through English: maybe, but not necessarily.

Spanish is spoken by some half a billion people worldwide, the majority of them living in the Americas, including the United States. It is the native language of 12 percent of Americans and is spoken by 30 percent of the population, including many native English speakers who have learned Spanish in school or through their professions.

It is a truism now to say that the Spanish language, just like English, crosses races, nations, class boundaries and more. Why does it continue to have such a social stigma, and why is it taken as the emblem of the threat to English-language dominance of American culture?

When we consider immigration reform and the demand that immigrants learn English or that government documents be rendered only in English, we should ask what logic is being assumed when English is included and Spanish excluded.

There is a fascinating and complicated history here that bears not only on the demographics of the United States, but also on the ways that language silently signals often contradictory or senseless assumptions about someone's race, and why it matters.


Gayle Rogers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh (


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?