The language of assimilation

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Esther Cepeda
March 29, 2012
— Back in the mid-1700s, German immigrants were the bane of my favorite Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, who believed they’d never assimilate into the predominant culture of the time.

Franklin believed the immigrants were “generally of the most ignorant, stupid sort of their own nation” and thus unable and unwilling to learn English.

“As few of the English understand the German language, and so cannot address them either from the press or the pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudice they once entertain,” he wrote, complaining that few of their children were taught English, they imported books from Germany, printed materials in their native language and even “the signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German.”

“They began of late all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (tho’ I think it ought not be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases, that there’s continual need of interpreters,” Franklin railed. “I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislature what the other half says.”


I wish that the sweet Dr. Franklin could come to the future and see what’s become of those newcomers who so threatened his vision of an English-speaking America.

Today, according to a Bloomberg compilation of data from the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, more than half of the nation’s 3,143 counties contain a plurality of people who describe themselves as German-American. The number of German-Americans rose by 6 million during the last decade to 49.8 million, almost matching the 50.5 million Hispanics who call the U.S. home.

And guess what? According to the most recent census figures on multilingual households, of the 1.1 million people who speak German at home, less than 5 percent don’t speak English well or at all.

This is one of America’s greatest immigrant success stories, right? You don’t think that, during Oktoberfests held annually across the country, attendants make fun of or look down on German-Americans who don’t sprechen sie deutsch, do you? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

So how could it be that if a Latino makes it to the big time, he or she catches flack for not speaking Spanish?

This is exactly what has happened to the Boston Fire Department’s new second in command, Steve Abraira, who last year became the city’s first Hispanic chief and the highest-ranking Latino in the department’s history.

Recently, The Boston Herald reported the “surprising news” that—gasp!—the Miami-born Abraira doesn’t speak Spanish.

Depending on which news site you read about this supposedly startling discovery, the comments range from discussions of tokenism and bitterness about affirmative action to complaints that it should be no surprise—or big deal—that a Latino doesn’t speak Spanish.

Huffington Post’s Latino Voices’ story did an excellent job of balancing the competing ideas that retaining Latino culture and language is a positive thing with many Hispanics’ fears that Spanish will eventually die out as a part of Latino identity.

This story spurred a social media flurry of tweets and status updates with the angst-filled litmus-test question: “Does NOT speaking Spanish make you any less Latino?”

As my mostly monolingual Anglo husband—and co-parent to two boys whose Spanish-language vocabularies consist mainly of the labels on the popular Mexican bingo game called “Loteria”—would say: “Ay, dios mio!”

If you even have to ask the language questions, then you really don’t get what being an American is all about.

The legacy of Latinos in the U.S., as proved by all descendants of immigrants from the Founding Fathers on down, is to become one from many. Yes, a few things from the “homeland,” including language, are lost while much more is gained in the “Promised Land” our immigrant forefathers and mothers sacrificed so much to reach.

A Hispanic fire chief in super-Irish Boston who can’t speak Spanish to its burgeoning Latino population got hired for his skills and not his ability to speak a foreign language. Ben Franklin would be so proud.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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