(Language), Neil knew, was a real problem for those families who went back and forth between Mexico and the United States. The brightest children leaned to speak, read, and write English, but they were illiterate in Spanish. They could speak the lower class Spanish used in their homes, but they usually could not read or write it. Worse, their dialect was no more suitable for a good Mexican school than an American hillbilly dialect would have been suitable for a high school in Boston.
Fiction has its place. It can make us think and care, but plain old non-fiction can sometimes get things across more quickly. To wit:
We are a nation of immigrants. Everyone knows that.
Spanish is an immigrant language. Yep. Everyone knows that, too. However, so is English. If we we spoke a language that isn’t an immigrant language, we would all be speaking Cherokee, or one of several hundred other native tongues. Aztec, anyone?
English got here first. No, actually it didn’t. Of European languages, Old Norse got here first with the Vikings, but it didn’t last. Spanish got here second. English, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish — the list could get tedious if we let it — are all late comers.
Now we are zeroing in on the truth. The French gave up the right to provide the language of choice for about half of the USA when Napoleon sold Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase. Spanish lost out as the language of choice in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, part of Colorado and Louisiana, tiny corners of Wyoming, Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and all of California at the point of a gun. Or, a bunch of guns. That’s roughly a third of the lower forty-eight.
Like it or not, it happened, and it is irreversible. English is the language of the US, despite the innumerable other languages spoken by our immigrants. They came here, procreated, the original speakers died, and their offspring now speak English.
So why are the Spanish speakers different? It is certainly not because of anything wrong with them. It’s quite simple. When Germans immigrated, they didn’t go back. Modern immigrant Spanish speakers, primarily Mexican, documented or undocumented, go back and forth.
Migrant labor is typically seasonal. Besides, wouldn’t you rather spend winter in Mazatlan than Minnesota if you could? Hordes of Anglos do it, and they don’t even speak the language.
Not all people of Spanish background move back and forth. Many of them came to the US and stayed. Tens of thousands of them were already here to greet the Anglo pioneers when they arrived. See map above! Millions of them don’t speak any Spanish, just as Nils Hansen of Kenosha, Wisconsin (hypothetical person) doesn’t speak Danish. There is a word for these people — Americans — and they don’t pose any language problem in the schools.
Those who do go back and forth are not going to stop doing so. It works for them. Summer labor in the US, then back to Mexico for its mild winters and lower costs is not just logical, it’s capitalism. It’s entrepreneurship. It’s survival for the Mexican families and cheap food for you. Drive by any field in California at harvest time and count the Anglos bending their backs in the sun. Your total will be zero.
A wall won’t change it. A path to citizenship won’t change it, either. The idea of a hermetically sealed border is a Trumpean delusion.
So where does that leave the children of migrants? In a tough spot, to be sure. They often don’t spend the whole school year in schools in America, and they often don’t enroll while they are in Mexico. Many don’t learn to speak, read, and write English as well as their Anglo or permanent Mexican American classmates. Some barely speak, read, or write English at all. They speak Spanish, but they often don’t read or write it.
Solutions? That would take a shelf of books, not a post.