The Spanish Language in the American Southwest

Dec 8, 2011 by

BY (“Languages of the World”)

 (Spanish language in the U.S. – U.S. Census Data 2007)[i]

            Few countries in the world have such a diverse and accepted ethnic and cultural diversity that is found in the United States. Due to the historical origins of the modern United States and its ties to European colonial superpowers throughout its relatively brief history, there is a great deal of immigrant cultural and communities that have established themselves over the years. One of the most significant immigrant communities in the U.S. is that of Spanish speaking immigrants, a great number of which come from adjacent and nearby countries such as Mexico as well as many countries in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.[i] The Ethnologue pegs the Spanish language as having over 28 million speakers in the United States alone, with only a couple of major dialects (Chicano/Calo and Isleno).[ii] The relatively high concentration of Spanish speakers in the U.S. has resulted in an extensive level of cultural clash and integration, of which a great amount is evident in the American Southwest. A brief outline of the historical precedents of the American southwest and the influence of a colonial past will demonstrate how the modern American Southwest has become infused with the Hispanic culture and the difficulties, synergies and representations that have come to arise over the years.
            In order to understand how Spanish came to be such a prevalent minority language in the American Southwest, it is important to note how the Spanish colonial influence and subsequently Mexican presence south of the border came to be. The earliest traces of Spanish in what is now the U.S. pre-dates permanent English settlers as Ponce De Leon made his way across the Atlantic at the turn of the 16th century.[iii] Continuing on forward, large land grabs on behalf of the American expansion to the West further implicated the presence of Spanish speakers in territories that were acquired from Spain. For example, the Louisiana Purchase at the start of the 19th Century allowed the U.S. to gain control of the Spanish-governed, French Colony of Louisiana which contained many French and Spanish speaking inhabitants that became U.S. citizens with the purchase.[iv] This occurred again as the United States annexed the Mexican state of Texas in 1846 from the newly formed Mexican government, which also granted Spanish speaking Mexicans U.S. citizenship upon annexation.[v] A few years later, the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War and absorbed much of the Spanish land that Mexico had gained from its war of independence from Spain.[vi] This land in the Southwest became parts of what we now know as the states of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, Nevada and Utah. Finally, one of the last major events to introduce a substantial amount of Spanish speakers occurred with the Spanish American War of 1898, which resulted in the U.S. control of Puerto Rico, which remains a territory today.[vii]
            Perhaps the most influential and significant source from which an increasingly larger amount of Spanish speakers in the U.S. is derived from is due to inflow of immigrants from south of the border in recent years. Modern migration patterns have included immigrants from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua as well as from many other Spanish speaking countries from around the world. Modern socio-economic inequities across Mexico and Latin America, as well as the perceived promise of economic growth and availability of labor roles in the U.S. are among the many reasons why migrant workers and permanent immigrants have consistently relocated themselves to the United States.[viii] Among the many destinations, the American Southwest, due to its aforementioned Spanish-speaking roots among other reasons, has remained a popular territory for migrating Spanish-speakers. U.S. Census data from 2007 revealed that the top six U.S. states by number of Spanish speakers (by a rather large margin) are California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.[ix] Being that five of those six states comprise the majority of the American Southwest, it becomes obvious why the Southwest has become such an influential region for the culmination of Spanish-speaking culture and American culture. The integration of these two languages, taking into consideration that English is the official language in the U.S., often results in a colorful spectrum of Spanish-speaking communities. Such communities are highlighted in major cities across the Southwest that preserve a large Hispanic presence, such as Los Angeles, California, Phoenix, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas to name a few.
            As with most languages, Spanish in the American Southwest has also evolved and distanced itself from its European origins. The Ethnologue lists two dialects of Spanish present in the U.S., which are Chicano/Calo and Isleno.[x] Isleno is the smaller of the two dialects, existing as a form of Spanish that originates from the Canary Islands.[xi] Chicano/Calo is a more prevalent dialect consisting of slang and modern Spanish arising from a mixture of English and Spanish influences, as well as older Spanish roots.[xii] A significant example within Chicano culture where this language fits in is found in the Zoot-Suit Pachuco movement during the 1930’s and 1940’s, where the youth resultant from a migrant Hispanic population developed this particular subculture.[xiii]

            Overall, Spanish as an immigrant language is very prevalent in many parts of the United States. As mentioned previously, this is largely due to significant Spanish colonial presence that slowly found itself absorbed into the United States during the 18th and 19th Centuries. It is the American Southwest, however, that has fostered some of the most concentrated and unique Hispanic communities in the country. It is also in this region where the language and culture it has brought continues to clash and integrate with American society, and where traditional linguistic and social barriers continue to be redefined into the 21st century.

[i] US Census Bureau. “Hispanic Americans by the Numbers.” Infoplease. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[ii] Ethnologue. “Spanish.” Ethnologue. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[iii] “Ponce De León : Florida’s First Spanish Explorer.” Florida Center for Instructional Technology. University of South Florida. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[iv] “Louisiana Purchase: Historical Perspectives, 1682-1815.” LSU Libraries. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[v] “Annexation of Texas.” United States American History. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[vi] “The Mexican-American War [].” Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[vii] Ibid 44d.
[viii] Rodriguez-Scott, Esmerelda. “Patterns of Mexican Migration from Mexico to the United States.” Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[ix] Shin & Kominksi.
[x] Ethnologue, Spanish.
[xi] Coles, Felice. “The Authenticity of Dialect: Real Isleños Speak Yat, Too.” LAVIS. University of Alambama. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[xii] Flemming, Laraine. “The Zoot Suit Riots.” Laraine Flemming – Textbook Author and Teacher. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. .
[xiii] Ibid


[i] Shin, Hyon B., and Robert A. Kominski. “Language Use in the United States: 200.” Web. 6 Dec. 2011. .

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  • Miguel Trina

    But when will be The Spanish language be made official among with English??? The USA is the second Hispanic country by number of Spanish speakers( around 50 million,there are many people who speak it as a mother tongue and others who do it as a second language) . I think it is time to make it official either in the states where more than the 10 per cent of the population speak it or in the whole country. In this way the USA have to learn a lot from Spain, basically because we made the Basque offcial even though it is only spoken by less than the 3 per cent of the spanish population as a mother tongue.

  • John Cowan

    With the exception of New Mexico, where official bilingualism is a conservative product of the settlement of the 1846-48 war, the states in which Spanish is widely spoken are precisely those which have made English the sole official language. It is an attempt to defend against the irrational fear of monolingual Spanish-speakers.

    In fact, the only monolingual Spanish-speakers in most of the U.S. are the first generation and children under five. The second generation is bilingual, and the third generation often speaks only English. This is the same pattern that other waves of immigrants have shown throughout U.S. history.

  • Miguel Trina

    I agree with u if we only consider 1 maybe 2 million of native speakers… I am talking about more than 30 million of sPANISH SPEAKERS AS A MOTHER TONGUE. It must be preserved, but why do I say preserve when I should say give what this language really deserves?? It is the second/third most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers only following chinese and maybe Hindi. It cannot disappear something that is worldwide known and defended.

  • John Cowan

    I agree that Spanish is an important language worldwide: after Mandarin, English and Spanish have about the same number of native speakers (though English has many more second-language speakers). Hindi/Urdu is substantially smaller, though it too has many second-language speakers in India and Pakistan. (After that come Arabic, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Punjabi; all but the last two have large numbers of second-language speakers.)

    But the question is, when should a country adopt official bilingualism? The answer is: when it has a large number of monolinguals. Otherwise, official monolingualism is preferred for reasons of cost. In most African countries, the colonial language remains the official language, because it is not feasible to support all the languages of the country, so everyone who deals with the government must be at least bilingual — and most people in Africa are bilingual or more. In Nigeria, there are almost 500 languages spoken as first languages, at least 8 of which are very widely spoken. Nevertheless, the only official language is English.

    In Canada, however, monolingual francophones are common, and monolingual anglophones are the majority. This is a situation where official bilingualism makes sense. Similarly, in Switzerland there are four official languages. The U.S. is not in this situation: although 176 languages are spoken indigenously (and at least 200 more by immigrants), 96% of the population speaks English, and 82% as a native language. (Children under five years are not counted.)

    Particular parts of the U.S. are another story, of course. In New York City where I live, for example, official voter registration forms are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean.

  • Miguel Trina

    I believe that one day the Spanish language will be made an official language in the USA with English, and in that moment it will just receive what Spanish language deserves. Because Spanish is not German, French or even English because it has more native speakers than every language except Chinese, which means that is a living language, and for me this is more important than others which try to make their languages artificially spoken(teaching them). Languages are naturally created by people who speak them deriving from an old one which was one day quite important(in my case latin), Spanish has clearly won this ´race` because has been preserved by his own native speakers because of its facility and easy writing system (much more usefull and with more sense than English, French or even italian) without any protection for many centuries.
    And I remember that we cannot compare Spanish with the languages spoken in the sub-saharan countries such as Hausa, Yoruba or Lingala.

  • John Cowan

    You may be right, at that. But if so, it will because a sufficient number of monolingual Spanish-speakers gain political power in the U.S. There is no evidence of that happening.

    Don't mistake me. I am not in favor of "English as the sole official language" laws at all. I think they are neither necessary nor desirable.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for an interesting debate, John and Miguel! I side with John here. Nor do I understand the claim that "Spanish deserves" to be an official language. Why? It's not that the large number of Spanish speakers around the world is voluntary?! Spanish has been imposed on its colonies as much as English was.