There’s a little secret shared by many Anglos who grew up in Spanish speaking parts of the United States. When we were kids, a lot of us turned the teevee to Univision, the Spanish network, even though we didn’t understand a thing.
Why did we do this? Nothing more than idle curiosity. We wanted to know what the deal was. Perhaps we could learn a little of the language and a bit of the culture. Once we tuned in, it was easy to get hooked on the erupting theatrics and the dewy-eyed women in low-cut dresses. If nothing else, everyone looked so damned good.
Whenever there is any debate about immigration or the use of Spanish in public places, I always come back to the images thrown at me by the telenovelas as a kid. There were times that I actually understood what was going on, or so I thought. It was a voyeuristic thrill, the idea that I was being let in on a secret that makes the memories so lasting. And I happen to think that secrets are the root of the problem.
If you are walking down a street or hanging out at a park, you can’t help but hear what people say around you. Little bits of their lives coming at you as speech tell you who they are, what they are doing, and most importantly how friendly or dangerous they might be. Someone speaking a different language is someone you cannot fully read. What are these people talking about? Are they saying something bad about me or my kind? Are they planning how to rob me? The mind of a person unused to being left out can wander very far in the vast territory mapped out by a secret.
Signs put up in Spanish are, to many people, simply proof that having secrets like this in public is acceptable behavior. They tell the mysterious others, “Plot against us all you want, we don’t mind”. The imagined threat suddenly has some kind of official backing. Worse yet are attempts to encourage children to be apart from the social pressures by speaking their native tongue. Schools are, first and foremost, about socializing and getting kids used to a life of careful conformity. If they can’t even speak the same language as everyone else, they will always be off in their own secret world. The horror!
While I am not as paranoid as some people, I confess that the secret world of Spanish was very compelling to me as well. How can people live so close to us and be so far apart? Language is so important that if you take it away and leave everything else, there is still a great gap of secrecy between neighbors. Imagination fills that space, and often fills it poorly.
How do we get beyond this? I would tell you, but it’s a secret. It’s not my secret, you know, but one many of us Anglos share. Watch Univision, and turn on closed-captioning if you have to. If nothing else, you’ll want to have your fortune told by Walter, he’s a real hoot.