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The U.S. needs to embrace its Latino personality (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The U.S. needs to embrace its Latino personality

(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

BARLOW and NADEAU

The U.S. needs to embrace its Latino personality Add to ...

The strong Latino flavour of the 2013 presidential inauguration ceremony surprised a lot of Canadians, and not just because Latinos have obviously gained so much political clout in the United States.

During his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, President Barack Obama is expected to announce his intention to reform immigration and create a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants – three-quarters of whom are Latino.

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Strangely, Americans see immigration reform as a way to “solve” a problem, when really it represents a historic opportunity for Americans to embrace their country’s unique Latino personality – in the same way that English Canada acknowledged its French component 50 years ago.

Latino culture and the Spanish language are not “foreign” to the United States. They were present on the continent before the foundation of the United States. In fact, the 21 (other) Spanish-speaking countries in the world consider the U.S., at least partly, as one of their own.

Many elements of Americana – the dollar sign, the dollar itself, ranch and cowboy culture, barbecues, mustangs and more – are Latino in origin. Spanish was the first European language spoken on U.S. territory. The oldest contracts, writs and charters date to the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565 by Spanish settlers – 42 years before Jamestown and 43 years before Quebec City.

(By comparison, the Latino presence in Canada is a 20th-century phenomenon, although some explorers brushed its shores earlier. The Basques whaled and fished in the St. Lawrence as early as the 16th century. An interesting product of this is the French term for moose, orignal, which is of Basque origin. And there was a Spanish fort, Fort San Miguel, on Vancouver Island from 1789 to 1795.)

Then, between 1821 and 1903, the United States actually entered Latino civilization by annexing, conquering or purchasing Florida, Texas, northern Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Marianas, the Panama Canal Zone, Cuba and the Philippines, of which only the last three are no longer U.S. territory.

That was how a hundred thousand Mexicans and a million Puerto Ricans became American overnight. Waves of Latino “immigration” followed, but mostly because the line between Mexico and the United States remained theoretical until the 1920s and not much of an obstacle until the late 1970s. And Puerto Ricans, of course, are not immigrants.

Studies have shown that after 1850, the Latino population of the U.S. increased faster than the general population. But in the past 50 years, it has grown faster than that of any other Spanish-speaking country in the world – even faster than Argentina’s did during its massive wave of European immigration from 1850 to 1950.

Two factors drove this growth: the deregulation of the U.S. job market, which made it easier to hire immigrants, and the fact that millions of Mexicans sought to improve their lot as the Mexican miracle – a period of sustained economic growth and low inflation – was grinding to a halt.

Today, the U.S. is home to about 11 per cent of the world’s 460 million hispanohablantes (Spanish speakers). According to the 2010 U.S. census, more than 50 million Americans – about 16 per cent of the population – are Latino; of these, an estimated 70 per cent (35 million) speak Spanish.

This puts the U.S. fifth among Spanish-speaking nations, after Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Argentina. And if demographic predictions pan out, the U.S. will become the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking country within a generation.

The Spanish-speaking world is acutely aware of the economic clout of the Latino United States. Since the 1980s, hundreds of radio stations, television channels, newspapers, magazines and websites have created an entire U.S. media industry that operates strictly in the language of Cervantes. Miami now competes with Mexico City’s Mexiwood as the centre of Latino television and film production. In 2012, The Associated Press even published its own 486-page Spanish stylebook, with 4,900 entries.

Since 1973, New York City has even been home to the Spanish world’s 22nd language academy, Academia norteamericana de la lengua (ANLE). In 2009, the U.S. government recognized this academy as the official authority on language for GobiernoUSA.gov, the Spanish-language government service portal, which has 24 million users. And now, as a result of ANLE’s work, hundreds of Spanish terms used exclusively in the U.S. will become part of the international standard of Spanish.

Within the Spanish-speaking world, the Latino United States is quickly becoming a cultural and economic locomotive with a strong contingent of wealthy Spanish-speaking consumers. The per-capita wealth of Latinos in the U.S. is greater than that of Spanish-speaking countries such as Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia.

Americans sense the opportunity that Spanish represents. That’s why an estimated 15 to 20 million Americans have already studied Spanish as a second language, with some 6.4 million more currently in Spanish classes.

More Americans study Spanish than all “foreign” languages combined. But, of course, Spanish is not foreign. It’s a daily necessity for millions of working Americans. Immigration reform should not just legitimize the status of millions of immigrants, it should recognize the Latino personality of the country.

Canadian writers and journalists Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau are the authors of The Story of Spanish, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in May. They live in Montreal.

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