December 14, 2010 -- When we take a lunch break, often we go to a "cafeteria." When we need to take a nap in the afternoon, we take a "siesta." When politicians show no courage, we say they lack "cojones." When we want to praise a concert musician, we shout, "Bravo!" When big storms are coming, especially "tornados," we often blame them on "El Niño." When we feel shortchanged, we say we got "nada." When someone flies over the cuckoo's nest, we describe him as a little "loco."
We may not realize it, but most Americans speak at least a little Spanish. Some Americans complain about the growth of the Spanish language, yet they speak it every day.
Whenever two people are trying to outdo each other, we say their competition is "mano a mano." When we put official business on hold, we call it an "embargo." When we go to the beach, we like having our own "cabana." When we search for a home, we appreciate having a "patio." But when the home is really big, sometimes we call it a "hacienda."
When we crave something to eat, often we think of "chocolate." But if we want something more "natural," perhaps we think of "bananas" or "papayas." And still we are thinking in Spanish.
When we go out for drinks, we expand our Spanish vocabulary. Sometimes we can't decide whether we want a "Cuba libre," a "piña colada," "tequila," a "mojito," a "daiquiri," or a "margarita." And of course, going out to dinner requires even more advanced Spanish. How else would you order tacos, fajitas, tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, frijoles, burritos, garbanzos, paella, quesadillas or churrascos? Can you go dancing nowadays and not know the difference between "salsa" and "merengue" or "rumba" and "tango"?
Some Spanish words that commonly are used as part of the English language are very much related to specific ethnic groups. When Mexican-Americans celebrate their heritage, for example, they will tell you that they are planning a "fiesta," complete with "sombreros," "mariachis" and a "piñata," and they will be speaking in English, peppered with Spanish words that are accepted as part of English.
And then there are English words that have been slightly adapted from Spanish. "Cañon" became canyon; "huracan" became hurricane; "patata" became potato; "tomate" became tomato; "lazo" became lasso; "camarada" became comrade; "aguacate" became avocado; "cruzada" became crusade. "Sabe," which means "know" in Spanish, became savvy. And "vaquero," the Spanish word for "cowboy," became buckaroo.
But most of the words of Spanish origin are easy to spot. In this country, most of us know the difference between a "flamenco" and a "flamingo," yet those are Spanish words. We know the difference between "macho" and "machismo," between an "armada" and an "armadillo," and we can tell a "peso" a "plaza" and a "poncho" apart. And still we are communicating in both English and Spanish at the same time.
For those who are in denial about the amount of Spanish in our English vocabulary, on the Internet there are long lists of English words of Spanish origin and of American counties, cities and landmarks with Spanish names. Check them out! They illustrate the depth of North America's Hispanic roots.
Yet some Americans, especially those who feel threatened by the growth of our Spanish-speaking population, want nothing to do with Spanish. They are irritated by having to hear bilingual announcements on a telephone recording or at the supermarket. In fact, some Americans still are trying to make English the country's "official" language. Whether they would keep the words with Spanish origin is unclear!
When it comes to language, these are people who refuse to accept some basic realities: that most immigrants are eager to learn the English language as soon as they arrive in this country, that many go through incredible sacrifices to learn English while finding ways to feed their families, that many programs that teach English as a second language throughout the country have long waiting lists, that no one is trying to impose the Spanish language on anyone.
Their paranoia is unfounded and based on ignorance.
Many Americans fail to recognize that Spanish was spoken all over North America long before a word of English was uttered here. And many of the Spanish words they constantly use were brought here not by newcomers from Latin America, but by Hispanics who preceded their Anglo-Saxon ancestors in coming here, even if they go all the way back to the Mayflower.
Words such as "rodeo," "corral" and "lasso" came here with the Spanish conquistadors, who explored huge portions of the U.S. mainland — long before British people arrived. And because the Spanish were here before other European explorers, they named many North American regions, cities and landmarks — in Spanish, of course!
When we talk about seven U.S. states — Florida, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, California, Arizona and "Nuevo Mexico" — we are speaking Spanish. When we travel throughout the Southwest and up through California's 600-mile Camino Real (mostly replaced by major highways nowadays), we still go through dozens of "pueblos" and hundreds of roads with Spanish names. On a road trip from San Antonio to San Francisco, you constantly are speaking Spanish just by reading the road signs!
Yet those who are in denial about America's Hispanic heritage and about the Spanish language they already speak are usually the ones who insist on a monolingual, English-only society and strong immigration enforcement. And yes, there is even a Spanish/English word to describe the anti-immigrant self-appointed guards of our border with Mexico: "vigilantes."
One of those Americans who favors "English-only" laws and Draconian anti-immigrant measures is Tom Tancredo, the former congressman from Colorado who debated me on CNN — when he was running for president in 2007 — and insisted that we should force all Americans to speak only in English.
"We would have to change the name of the congressman's state," I said, trying to restrain my sarcasm. "He's from 'Colorado.' We would have to call it 'Red.'"
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