Is This the Rebirth of a Bilingual L.A.?

Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

I see the edges of a Spanish bilingual future in Southern California, a time when speaking Spanish is as accepted and expected as hearing French in Quebec. It'll be a time when non-Spanish speakers don't feel threatened when they hear Spanish in the workplace and on the street.

Two centuries ago people used Spanish to describe the hills, the natural springs, the canyons, the beginning and end of a ranch, and later for California's first constitution.

For about a century Spanish was under siege. The language, and the people who spoke it were given their place by the ruling class that replaced the Mexican Californios. Cal State Northridge professor Fredric Field reminded an auditorium of linguistics students recently that Los Angeles schools just a few generations ago used to fine students for speaking Spanish at school.

So if language is what we've got to express complex thoughts then isn't any prohibition or curtailment on the use of a language a limitation on thinking? For the people who arrive here from some place else their native language is all they've got. Public schools have, to this day Field said, tried to eliminate the native or heritage language in an effort to subtract that language and replace it with English. That's does not nurture learning, he said.

The growing popularity of dual immersion education, in which a English is taught alongside another language, is changing things.

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At Cal State Long Beach researchers such as Clorinda Donato and Markus Muller are pushing inter-comprehension classes. They hope that the sooner we see multi-lingual Southern California in the same open, accepting way we see multi-lingual Europe the sooner the region's education will improve for most, not just the wealthy and white (this is a characterization from the recently filed Vergara vs. California lawsuit.). Inter-comprehension put the burden on everyone, I have to know a bit of Mandarin to understand what you're asking, and you have to know a bit of Spanish to understand my answer.

Glimpses of the bilingual SoCal future echoed at the recent Dodgers game where Spanish language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin was honored. Lots of Spanish speakers on the jumbotron praised him at different points in the game. The Dodgers handed out 30 thousand t-shirts with Jarrin's signature catchphrase, "Se va, se va, se va..." "It's going, going, going..." It was cool to see all kinds of people wear the t-shirt at the game, Latino, black, white, Asian. See, nothing happens to you when you wear Spanish on your chest. And maybe at some point in a future Dodgers game the whole stadium will join me and the borrachos behind me in Reserve 24 singing the old-school ranchera, "Yo se bien que estoy afuera, pero el dia que yo me muera, se que tendras que llorar..."


I saw another clue of this bilingual future printed on a billboard on the 710 freeway near South Gate. That's where about a decade ago Mexican rocker Saul Hernandez of Caifanes stared at us working stiffs making our commutes to cubicle land. He was on a Hennessy billboard with the slogan "Never Blend In." He was selling booze, sure, but he also seemed to be saying with his eyes, "que esperas?" "What are you waiting for?"

Now, on that same freeway, a big brewing company ad says "Ya se armó." In English, it's on. Next to the phrase El Paso's favorite son Aaron Sanchez, yes the New York City restauranteur and TV food program black belt, held a beer in one hand next to the beer company's name. Is it bad that that it's come to this, finding solace in beer billboards that the Spanish of my youth will not wither and die?

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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