English Only! (Part 1)

English Only! (Part 1)

“Para Español, oprima el numero dos. For English, stay on the line.” By now, most of us in the United States have heard this message after dialing 411. For some, it is a welcome acknowledgement that they are part of the American fabric. At least phone companies realize that providing bilingual instructions helps facilitate more efficient phone service in a country with a number of Spanish speakers. That is a small and appreciated sign of being included in the American Dream.

For some other people, it just pisses them off. “Why in the hell should I have to wait? This is America. Speak English.” Dude! Is an extra three seconds going to put your whole day in the ditch? “Well, we were here first.” Actually, before English, Spanish, or French was spoken here, it was Native American languages spoken on this continent. So, in theory, smoke signals came first.

It always trips me out that America, the most powerful and magnificent nation in the history of the world, whose might was built by immigrants from all over the world, only speaks one language. Canada, our frozen neighbor to the north, is less populated than California and residents there speak two official languages: English and French. The Chinese speak Mandarin and Cantonese, each language with over 20 dialects all so different that they might as well be separate. (Or so I’m told. I don’t know. I only speak English and a little Spanish). In the former Soviet Union, Russians spoke more than fifteen different languages spread across 12 time zones. Most Europeans speak at least three languages so they can be understood anywhere they go in the EU.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, my wife speaks five languages: Russian, English, French, Italian and, out of self-defense, Spanish. I watched her learn Spanish in three months. She reads, writes, and speaks it well enough to prevent linguistic misunderstandings or disasters with our Spanish-only speaking housekeeper and gardener. Our white clothes never come out pink. There is always someone able to receive packages from FedEx when we aren’t there. The leaf blower never starts at 7 a.m. outside our bedroom window.

My stepson speaks Russian, English, and Spanish: Russian because his mother would kill him if he didn’t; English because he was born here; and Spanish so he could hang out with the “cholos” at his school.

Being a third-generation Mexican-American and speaking English exclusively, I heard Spanish spoken by my relatives all my life, especially when they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about. That was still a head start and easier than starting from scratch when, in my forties, I made a real effort to learn Spanish.

Knowing an extra language is like getting out of one tense, away from just one verb. For a Mexican-American who learns better Spanish, it feels like a first step to displaying actual personality. You are no longer a tourist holding out a handful of money allowing natives to take what they want. You no longer say things that sound like “I used to want a beer right now.”

So why are we stuck cramming one “lingo” (sorry, Spanish again) down everybody’s throat? It baffles me that there is an “English Only” movement in the United States. To me, it’s like having a “Right-handers Only” movement.

Now an argument can be made that there are some people who were born here, but don’t speak English well. Some have a regional accent so thick others can’t understand a damn word they’re saying. Have you ever heard a Mississippian asking for directions in Cape Cod, Massachusetts? It’s like watching a snake trying to pass an avocado pit. There’s a lot of straining and bulging eyeballs. Maybe there should be an English-verbal skills exam that everybody must take every three years like renewing a driver’s license.

So what’s really behind the “English Only” Movement? Fear. Fear of being taken over and one day they will have to learn something different. Heaven forbid they would have to learn something new. Well, dudes and Arizonans, I’m speaking to you. I’ve got some news. You already have been taken over. You just haven’t gotten used to the idea.

Actually, the country hasn’t been taken over. It’s been taken back. Right now, we are in the middle of the biggest wave of immigration ever in the history of the country. 85% of this current wave is from our next-door neighbor Mexico. What distinguishes this from previous waves of Mexicans is that it is happening simultaneously in every state. It is not confined to the West and Southwest. There are Mexicans everywhere. You can go to Iowa, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Michigan, or Kentucky and find growing Latino communities. Mexicans are now the largest head count of Latinos in New York City, moving ahead of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans.

In the late 1980s, I was living in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan while making a movie for six months. When going out each morning for coffee and a newspaper, I kept noticing that there were a lot of Mexicans working in the area.

You can tell which band of Latinos you’re dealing with by listening to the music played at full volume during work. If they’re playing Banda music — essentially German oompah music with too many jalapeños — you got Mexicans; probably from Zacatecas, which is like the Nashville of Banda music.

Now, the most astounding fact is that more than 80% of Mexicans immigrants in the U.S. are under 25 years of age, the prime baby-making years. And y’all know how much them “Messi-cans” like to make babies. They are each going to have at least 20 kids apiece at the same time all over the country. Buenos Dias, Elmer. America, chinga que si!

~ Cheech Marin

Originally published in the Huffington Post on August 14, 2012. This is the first part of the two-part article “English Only” written by actor, director, and art advocate Cheech Marin.