By Roberto Lovato
When Newt Gingrich equated bilingual education with teaching “the language of living in a ghetto” this week, it took me back to my own linguistic roots. San Francisco’s Mission district was a place where the crowded housing projects overflowed with sounds of English, Spanish, Ebonics, Spanglish and other languages spoken and sung and mixed and dubbed until those moments when night and morning became one. The multilingual polyphony of this environment still makes it hard to define whether I grew up in a “ghetto” or a “barrio.”
Because these multiple threads of my speech DNA inspired my love of language (while sometimes disturbing my formal studies of it as well), I respond with a mix of anger and some confusion to Gringrich’s recent comments linking languages like Spanish to a “ghetto.” I share neither his experience and views of ghettoes nor his understanding of language as a kind of gated community frozen in time. What he triggers most are various sorts of fear.
One kind of fear comes from having heard during a recent visit to Atlanta both the stately, sotto voce expressions of upscale, mostly white anger in Gingrich’s Cobb County and the more blatant and very loud drawled racist epithets at one of the increasing numbers of anti-immigrant KKK and Neo-Nazi rallies in Georgia. All of this anger and hate was expressed in English, a language, Gingrich tells us, is “the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”
Rather than cast off Gingrich as another backwoods racist in statesman’s clothing, we should be deeply disturbed about his word choices, his deployment of and attacks on one of the primary definers of the human: language.
Reading about how the repetition of certain words and phrases that denigrated minorities in places like Rwanda and Nazi Germany helped me understand how politicians and other “leaders” can use words to facilitate, normalize, interpret and incite violence, mass jailings and other frightening actions against racial, religious and linguistic minorities.
Reading the diaries of Protestant German journalist and literature professor Victor Klemperer taught me how the slow but steady march of repression having his license revoked, losing his job, losing his citizenship, having his home invaded by state authorities, being forced to live in a ghetto - was almost always accompanied by a slow, but steady growth of verbal, linguistic attacks on Jews and other unwanted groups.
Having lived in wartime El Salvador, when it was a de facto military dictatorship, taught me that such hatred and bigotry recognize no physical or linguistic borders. Having interviewed immigrants here in the United States who, like Klemperer, have had to stand by and watch their licenses revoked, their jobs lost, their families imprisoned and deported makes me fearful of the tepid response of too many media and community leaders who treated as “casual” Gingrich’s allegedly “off-handed” statements (he has since apologized in broken Spanish for what he called “clumsy” remarks).
Calling Gingrich a “racist” does little to him or for our understanding of the workings of language in times of social distress. I learned more from my interview 3 weeks ago with Justeen Mancha, a 16-year-old Georgia girl who woke up to find 6 heavily-armed immigration agents crashing through her door asking for who was “Mexican” and had “papers.” Justeen’s experience makes me even more nervous about what her fellow Georgian has in mind for immigrants and non-immigrants alike (Mancha and her family are all U.S. citizens.)
While we do not live in wartime El Salvador or Nazi Germany, Gingrich’s scapegoating of people and their language must nonetheless be viewed within the dangerous context of a wartime United States, in which the normalization of torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (as well as on popular television shows like ‘24’), the denial of habeas corpus and other clear signs of the ascent of a national security state have all been promulgated with the same political and linguistic gradualism that characterized previous historical periods. For this reason, Gingrich’s comments about linguistic “ghettos” should be greeted with the same fury that anti-Semitic comments or the use of the “N” word inspires.
To their credit, Jews and African Americans know about and respond without vacillation to the deployment of dangerous language. And it’s no coincidence that their histories and responses are both informed by experiences in the “ghettos” of old. For their part, the very dispersed and hybrid Latinos, especially immigrant Latinos, do not yet have a consistent and rooted history of monitoring and denouncing deadly linguistic manipulation in English. I’ve heard such denuncias en Espanol, a language whose political sophistication is unrivaled in the insurgent hemisphere.
In this sense, Gingrich’s statements are as much about severing links to the radical roots of Latino life as they are about inculcating the either-or wartime logic that says Latinos must either speak “the language of prosperity” or suffer continued attacks in “ghettos.” We must confront the likes of Gingrich who wish to rule and define our lives from the ghettos of their minds.
Reprinted from LatinoLA (www.latinola.com)