Time magazine’s March 5 edition is barrier-breaking, according to Richard Stengel, the managing editor. “For the first time in our history, we have a Spanish sentence as our cover line: Yo decido. I decide.”
Applause and gratitude to Stengel and his staff of distinguished journalists for choosing to feature the increasing clout of Latino voters, but I wish they had made history differently.
Yes, speaking to someone in their native tongue can be a sign of affection and respect. But here’s the problem: Speaking to Latinos in a language other than English promotes the myth that Hispanics don’t, can’t or won’t speak it.
Worse, it ignores the reality that though there are varying degrees of bilingualism in the community, Latinos will ultimately be no different than any other wave of immigrants who came to this country and eventually made English their family’s primary language.
And even worse than that, it fires up the people who look at such a cover and see concrete evidence that their beloved country is on its way to being drenched by a so-called demographic tsunami that will leave anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish behind.
Nothing could be further from the truth — for most Hispanics in the U.S., English is “our” language.
Last month, the Pew Hispanic Center released its most recent statistical portrait of Hispanics in the U.S., using updated 2010 Census figures. The data show that 25 percent of the Hispanic population ages 5 and up, including both the native and foreign born, speaks only English at home — up from 22 percent in 2005. Another 40 percent say they speak English “very well” and the trends point upward. Plus, even the 35 percent who speak English “less than very well” aren’t all Spanish-only speakers.
Those hoping to cash in on the much-ballyhooed trillion-dollar purchasing might of Latino consumers have started to figure this out.
Four years ago — when I was bemoaning the surging popularity of Spanish-only media as a detriment to a population whose new arrivals often find themselves cloistered in Spanish-speaking enclaves and job sites, and whose children are segregated into Spanish-language classrooms — I sat down with an executive at a Spanish-language cable channel and pointedly asked when it was going to start broadcasting in English. The answer was a swift, “I can’t see that ever happening.”
Today it’s a different story. Increasingly, mainstream media news outlets hoping to cater to Latinos are creating English-language content instead of trying to provide it in Spanish, and traditionally Spanish-only channels are diversifying their partnerships and programming.
Univision and Disney are in negotiations to create a 24-hour news channel for Latinos. Telemundo is introducing shows featuring “Spanglish,” English subtitles and some all-English shows. Mexican TV’s Grupo Televisa is partnering with several U.S. entertainment groups to remake popular telenovelas in English. And Robert Rodriguez, the Texas-born director of hit movies Spy Kids, El Mariachi, and Sin City just got his own cable channel on Comcast.
I could go on with these examples, but you get my point: U.S.-born Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the Hispanic population and their median age is 18. We old-timers, 30 and over, grew up seeing Time magazine on newsstands. Younger Latinos recognize its distinctive red border from last May’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 promotional poster, and many elementary schools get the Time for Kids magazine in classrooms weekly.
I really can appreciate Time editors for highlighting the ways in which Latinos could decide the outcome in key battleground states this November, and it would be great to see more coverage of the Latino community in its pages. But next time they or any other organization want to show us they care, they need not fear that doing so in English won’t be a sincere enough overture.
And, frequently, attempts at “speaking our language” backfire, as was the case when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke Spanish during news conferences about last summer’s big hurricane. I thought his tortured mangling of the language was a beautiful gesture in the middle of a dire emergency, but some snarky listeners savaged him for his effort.
There’s no need for anyone to put themselves through that for Hispanics. Respect is a universal quality that comes through just fine in English.