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article imageUS Spanish speakers decry 'second-class' treatment under Trump

By Laura BONILLA (AFP)     Mar 9, 2019 in World

When Donald Trump took office, one of his first acts was to remove the White House's Spanish-language web page.

More than two years later, as the US president battles with Congress over funding for a border wall to stem the tide of immigrants from Central America, disturbing incidents linked to the use of Spanish are on the rise.

In May, a New York lawyer went off on employees in a Manhattan store who were speaking Spanish, threatening to call immigration authorities.

That same month, two American women were arrested by border patrol agents for speaking Spanish to each other.

The acts of intolerance are evidence of the country's increasing political polarization, even though the language is more and more commonplace in American life.

More than 41 million people living in the United States claim Spanish as their mother tongue. Hispanics are now the country's main minority group, at 17 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Worryingly, a study from the center published in October revealed that about 40 percent of Latinos said they had been harassed over the last 12 months because of their background, including speaking Spanish in public.

Since Trump was elected in November 2016, "we are seeing more employees calling saying, 'Hey, I’ve been told to speak English only'," says Christopher Ho, a lawyer for Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco.

The association provides legal assistance to workers and a toll-free number where Latinos can file complaints about language-based discrimination.

- Harassment -

On social media, it's not hard to find examples of people behaving badly when faced with Spanish speakers.

A student at the bilingual Franklin high school in Los Angeles walks past signs bearing lessons in E...
A student at the bilingual Franklin high school in Los Angeles walks past signs bearing lessons in English and Spanish in May 2017
Robyn Beck, AFP/File

In June, 24-year-old Julio Cesar Ovalle -- who was born in Los Angeles and is American but grew up in Mexico -- was walking in San Antonio when he was arrested by a border patrol agent.

Ovalle did not have ID on him, and never really learned to speak good English. He was quickly accused of being in the United States illegally, and was deported the next day, despite his efforts to explain his situation.

"It was an injustice and racism, all because I don't understand or speak English well," Ovalle said -- in Spanish -- to the San Antonio Express-News.

In October, a Guatemalan family was harassed in a restaurant in Lovettsville, Virginia.

One woman, after asking to see their passports, used an expletive multiple times in telling them to "go back" home.

"The Trump administration and its rhetoric has clearly emboldened some of the worst impulses" at US Customs and Border Protection, said Cody Wofsy, a lawyer at the powerful American Civil Liberties Union.

The organization is representing the two women who were arrested in Montana and have since filed a complaint against border patrol

"There's no official language in the US. People are within their right to speak any language they want, and hundreds and hundreds of languages are spoken in the US," Wofsy said.

- Cleaning ladies, gardeners, nannies -

Spanish has always been present in the United States, notably in the West, where territory that is now part of six different states was sold to the US by Mexico in the mid-19th century.

While some families have given up the use of Spanish over the years, it remains a dynamic force thanks to the constant stream of immigrants arriving in the United States and the country's proximity to Latin America.

For Marta Mateo, director of the Observatory of the Spanish Language and Hispanic Cultures in the United States, based at Harvard University, this is more than language-based discrimination.

She wants to talk about social discrimination against migrants, with Trump's populist speeches adding fuel to the fire.

"The biggest immigrant group is Hispanic, so their language is attacked," she says, explaining what she believes to be the thought process.

Mateo spoke of the ubiquity of the language and the numerous services provided in the language which, since the 1970s, dethroned French as the language most commonly studied in schools.

"Maybe these aggressive incidents against Spanish are simply more visible today," she offers.

Maria Carreira, a Spanish professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, also believes the incidents amount to social discrimination.

Despite being everywhere in American society, Spanish is still often considered a second-class language, as opposed to French or Italian, she says.

"Spanish is associated with 'swarthy, dark-skinned' people," she says. "It's seen as the language of cleaning ladies, gardeners and nannies."

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