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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