Plea for the Spanish Language
c. 1910 — Interscholastic Oratorical Association, New Mexico Normal University (now New Mexico Highlands University), Las Vegas NM
The territory of New Mexico has undergone many changes, politically and socially, it has solved many problems and now, upon the eve of statehood, a new problem is being discussed in every hamlet, village and city:
“Shall the Spanish language continue to be taught in our public schools?”
It seems beyond all doubt that New Mexico is soon to take her place as one of the states, in the grand sisterhood of commonwealths of this mighty union. That boon which for 60 long years she has sought in vain seems now within her reach, and to all appearances she has but to extend her hand in order to gain it: yet in her enthusiasm and eagerness to obtain it, she must not forget that she has problems to meet and solve such as no other state ever had.
In order to understand this problem thoroughly, let us state the peculiarities of our achievement. There is to the south of this rich and vast domain a population of more than 60,000,000 people, all descended from the Spanish Conquistadores. To the north, are found the homes of at least 90,000,000 of another people, nearly all of Anglo-Saxon blood, speaking an entirely different language. New Mexico is the meeting ground of these representatives of the Romanic and Germanic races, and no one can fail to see, even now, that their amalgamation is but a question of time. What the final outcome of such a union will be, of course no one can predict with absolute certainly, but if it be true that history repeats itself under analogous conditions, then we may venture the prediction that a new race will spring from such a union that will far surpass either of its factors in all those traits and characteristics that make man better fitted for high responsibilities. The past history of these two races is a record of glorious deeds and notable achievements. Both have in their natures elements of greatness, and the union of the calm, business like spirit of the Anglo-Saxon with the sanguine, chivalrous enthusiasm of the Castilian will be such a blending of all that is best in human nature that we fail to see how anything better for the wealth of humanity could possibly happen.
A difficulty presents itself at the very beginning; no matter how eager one may be that a new race should people these plains and hills, his hopes will be blasted if the essential means are ignored, means efficacious to the desired end. One of these is the cultivation of a thorough acquaintance, one with the other — the Anglo-Saxon with Castilian — the Anglo-American with the Spanish-American. How can this be done unless each understands the other’s language?
In New Mexico, English and Spanish are the leading languages of the territory. The English language is the language in which the great bulk of the business of the country is transacted. The Spanish language, the language of the Spanish-Americans, the language of the Cortezes, the De Sotos and the Coronados, has been for more than three centuries the home language of the territory. Now, however, it has been proposed by the president and the congress of the United States to deprive the territory of this language; that is, they seem to wish to break into fragments at a single blow this strong and marvelous link in the chain of events, which has connected and held together the history of the old and new worlds; for this is exactly what the Spanish language has done, is doing, and will continue to do as long as it is not eliminated from the public schools and driven out of the territory.
In the act enabling New Mexico to become a state, passed by congress, it was provided that none except those who speak, read and write the English language with sufficient correctness shall be eligible to the legislature of the new state, or to any of the state public offices. It is claimed by some of those who passed this act that the Spanish-American will become a better citizen by depriving him of the use of his vernacular. In resorting to such a course, it would seem that the contrary effect might be produced in him by the unwarranted interference of congress with his natural rights, and instead of becoming a better, he might be made a worse citizen. Yet the Spanish-Americans of New Mexico have never been bad citizens. They have more than once proved their loyalty to the government and their love for the “Stars and Stripes,” as their conduct in the Civil and the Spanish-American wars, and in many of the Indian wars, abundantly testifies.
It is impossible to understand why, in view of such a record, the people of New Mexico should be so unceremoniously deprived of a right which flows from the very essence of their manhood, for the right of language in man is a God-given right, and as such it is guaranteed and secured to him by the federal constitution when it declares that the natural rights of all men are inalienable. To single out New Mexico, then, for such unprecedented treatment, at the very moment that she is welcomed into sisterhood, is not only a gratuitous insult to the intelligence of her people, but it is also a proceeding as untenable in principle as it seems to be outrageous in its intent.
Man is by nature fond of distinction in anything that is praiseworthy. Everybody loves he praise of others, and to obtain it tries to become as accomplished as he can. We are accustomed to recognize the superiority of the person who has a command of one or more foreign languages. Consequently, as an accomplishment in the individual, the study of languages should be encouraged in its citizens. Why, then, should this most enlightened nation prevent the study of the Spanish language of the majority of the people, and especially since it is as cultured and refined as any of the modern languages and far surpasses them in dignity, beauty and majesty?
A few Spanish words are sufficient to set in motion all the finer and nobler sentiments of our nature. Take, for instance, the entrancing and patriotic image pictured by [José de] Espronceda when, in appealing to the Spanish people to rescue their country from the regime of the pusillanimous Charles IV, who was absolutely dominated by France:
Del centro de sus Reyes los pedazos
Del suelo ensanguentado recogía,
Y nuevo trono en sus robustos brazos
Levantado, a su Príncipe ofercía.
This passage from Espronceda is but a single, isolated instance of the richness of Spanish poetry. Pathos, tragedy, indomitable courage, patriotism, and the passionate appeal to action — all are eloquently and sublimely compressed into four short lines.
There is a host of Spanish writers who have beautified and ennobled Spanish literature to at least as high a degree as have the Chaucers, Drydens, Miltons, Byrons and Websters, uplifted the English language. We have our De Vegas, Calderon, Escriches, Castellars, Bellow and Arboledas, whose talents make them fully the compeers of the best Saxon bards and prose writers and whose pens have made Spanish literature the delight of scholars in every age and clime; while towering above them all stands the colossal genius, the author of “Don Quixote,” whose superb merit is universally acknowledged and whose fame is rivaled but not surpassed by that of the great bard of Avon.
Yet this grand array of illustrious scholars, not to mention a vast number of others not less brilliant, will be lost to the youth of New Mexico when the Spanish language ceases to be taught in her schools.
Then consider the great commercial importance of this language. Besides being spoken in Spain and the Philippines, it is spoken in all countries south of the United States. These countries offer an unlimited field for the investment of American energy and enterprise. The advice of Horace Greeley to the young men of our country: “Go West” was heeded and the West became a blooming garden and a mighty empire: But the West is now filling up rapidly and those young men must soon turn south to these Spanish-American countries. If then we would cultivate their friendship and good will, get them to do business with us, admit us into their society, we should be able to greet them with a “Cómo está Usted?” as well as that they should be able to greet us with a “How do you do?”
Our public schools must have the Spanish language for the same reason that other modern languages are taught in them; they must have it as the inseparable companion of her sister, the English; they must have it if we wish that our youth shall be fully prepared to meet the duties which are awaiting them in all the Spanish-American countries — duties which they will in vain try to perform, without a thorough knowledge of the Spanish language.
The Spanish language is the language of our fathers, it is our own language, and must be now and hereafter the language of our children and our children’s children. It is the language handed down to us by the discoverers of this New World. We are American citizens, it is true, and our conduct places our loyalty and patriotism above reproach.
We want to learn the language of our country, and we are doing so; but we do not need, on that account, to deny our origin or our race or our language or our traditions or our history or our ancestry, because we are not ashamed of them; and we will not do it, because we are proud of them.
The Spanish, next to the English, is the language most widely spread throughout the world; and though now the sun sets on the dominions of the actual successor of Charles V, it does not set, nor will it ever, on the dominion of the Spanish language. It is spoken in the far-off Philippines, and far along, from frozen mountain peaks to blooming valleys, it leaps with ever-increasing echo from Mexico and Central America down to the Straits of Magellan. All the islands cradled in the bosom of the Atlantic rejoice in its grandeur and its majesty. Lastly it is spoken, written and sung in Spain — romantic Spain — the land of knighthood and the mother of heroes, the power that saved Europe from the fate of the Roman Empire, the hand that first unraveled the mystery of the sea, to give a New World to civilization, and to hoist the ensigns of Christianity on the Teocalis of the Incas and the Montezumas.
Such is the language against which it is proposed to close the doors of the public schools of this territory. A language with such a record, such a history, such traditions and backed, as in the Spanish by the moral influence of so many civilized countries, deserves a place not only in the public schools of New Mexico where it belongs by inheritance the right which three centuries of permanency therein give it, but in the best colleges of the United States in the proudest seats of learning in the world.
Therefore, in the name of all that is noble, grand and beautiful in the literature of the world; in the name of the broadening of the fields of our business interests, and in the expansion of trade relations with our immediate neighbors; in the name of the Anglo-Saxon youth of this territory who are everywhere endeavoring, with an earnestness fully worthy of the excellent cause to learn the Spanish; in the name of the rights which the people of New Mexico have as citizens of this great republic; in the name of its duty to them, as contracted most solemnly before the world at Guadalupe Hidalgo; in the name of honesty and justice, let us by all means see to it that the Spanish language is not driven from the public schools of New Mexico.
Source: New Mexico Normal University Bulletin 23 (January 1911).
Also: Albuquerque Journal, February 1, 1911, p. 6.
Also: Herencia: The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States, ed. Nicholás Kanellos, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2001, pp. 135-139.