It’s official. Hillary Clinton has finally chosen her running mate. His name is Tim Kaine and in case you haven’t heard he is “fluent in Spanish.” I think it is great that Tim Kaine speaks Spanish. Bilingualism is a skill that more Americans should have. That said, I wonder why it is that his bilingualism is being celebrated while the bilingualism of the Latinx community continues to be policed and denigrated.
Apparently, Kaine learned Spanish in 1980 when he worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras. That was the same year that Ronald Regan was elected president and began efforts to dismantle bilingual education for Latinx children in the United States. It was also the same year that Miami based an anti-bilingual ordinance making English the official language. The following year, English was declared the official language of Kaine’s home state of Virginia. I am certainly not blaming Kaine for these efforts. Yet, it is interesting that the same year that he as a white man was offered the opportunity to become bilingual that that bilingualism of Latinx communities in the US, including in his home state, was positioned as a threat to national unity that needed to be eliminated.
As another point of comparison, let’s look at the way that the bilingualism of Julian Castro, another potential VP choice has been discussed. In contrast to Tim Kaine he has been described as not speaking “fluent Spanish.” This has raised questions about his viability as a politician. It is, of course, unfathomable to imagine the viability of a white politician being questioned because of a perceived lack of fluency in Spanish. To expect this for Latinx politicians is working under the mistaken assumption that most Latinx people prefer Spanish to English, which is far from the truth. In fact, more and more Latinx people are positioned and position themselves as not speaking fluent Spanish. Castro’s experience no doubt resonates with many of them more than a white guy who learned Spanish as a missionary in Honduras.
Yet, what is most interesting to me is that Julian Castro—like many Latinx people who are positioned or position themselves as not fluent in Spanish—does, in fact speak Spanish. If you don’t believe me, check out this YouTube clip. Is his Spanish perfect? No. But neither is Tim Kaine’s Spanish and nobody has ever questioned his fluency. Neither is my Spanish and though people have questioned my fluency I stopped caring a long time ago. Neither is anybody’s Spanish (or English for that matter). The fact of the matter is that with a little bit of help from the interviewer Castro was able to have a perfectly intelligible conversation in Spanish.
This is a textbook example of a raciolinguistic ideology. For a white politician it is an asset to have any Spanish-speaking abilities. For a Latinx politician it is a liability not to have perfect Spanish-speaking abilities. This stance is particularly ironic for a society that has at many points actually worked to undermine the bilingualism of the Latinx community.
Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that the most vocal proponents of this raciolinguistic ideology are often Latinx people who have internalized this white supremacist framing of language and see it as their duty to police the Spanish language skills of other Latinx people. A recent example of such policing was the backlash that actress Gina Rodriguez received after posting a message in Spanish on Instagram. Meanwhile, we often celebrate non-Latinx (mostly white) celebrities who “show off their Spanish skills.”
So if you are a Latinx person who finds yourself a victim of this type of language policing follow Gina Rodriguez’s lead and reject their attempt at policing your identity. If you are a Latinx person who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of other Latinx people stop doing this. It is a behavior rooted in white supremacy that serves to divide us rather than to bring us together. If you a white person who speaks Spanish who finds yourself engaging in this type of language policing of Latinx people take several seats. You have benefited from a white supremacist framework that has always commended you for your Spanish abilities while criticizing us for our Spanish. And if you a white politician trying to get Latinx people to vote for you, we’re going to need more than a white VP who speaks Spanish.