It all began with a tweet by Gael García Bernal during the Oscars ceremony. In his tweet, the Mexican sweetheart congratulated Roma and all those who made it possible for it to win the prestigious award, and he also made a comment in passing about how the “Best Movie In A Foreign Language” category should change its name, triggering a heated debate online about the status of Spanish in the United States.
The tweet was also within the context of an award show where Mexican actor Diego Luna and Spanish Javier Bardem also had time on the podium of the Oscars 2019 ceremony and sent messages in Spanish, making it crystal clear that Spanish speakers are becoming the dominant force in the entertainment industry.
Javier Bardem and Angela Bassett delivering the Award For Best Movie In A Foreign Language to Alfonso Cuarón. / Photo: Kevin Winter / AFP.
“There are no frontiers, there are no walls to stop ingenuity and talent. In every region in every country in every continent of the world there are stories that touch our hearts, and tonight we celebrate the excellency and the importance of the culture and the language of different countries,” said Bardem during the presentation of the award for Best Movie In A Foreign Language.
It is surprising that a category whose main characteristic is to gather all the movies where English is not the main language suddenly does not include those spoken in Spanish, and that for the rest of the awards also considers those movies whose main language is Spanish. But the numbers don’t lie: the United States is the second country with the largest Spanish-speaking population, with close to 58.2 million people.
Spanish has become such an important language that even many .gov websites now have Spanish versions, such as the FBI or CDC. But there is even more: centuries ago Spanish was already part of American culture and heritage.
Ever since the US bought a large chunk of the north of Mexico in 1848, all the inhabitants of the area received immediate citizenship, but they were allowed to continue speaking Spanish, and there was no attempt to impose the use of English. Therefore, for a while, some states like New Mexico and California had to have all their laws in English and Spanish, and they could even be published in Spanish. The same happened with Puerto Rico, an incorporated territory that still uses Spanish.
The lack of imposition of English over any other language has its origins in the fact that there is no single language that is the official language at the federal level:
“The Founding Fathers didn’t see a need to declare one. English was pretty much the dominant language of the United States at the time so there really wasn’t a need to protect it. And they didn’t want to offend their fellow Americans who helped fight for independence.” CNN
Alfonso Cuaron. / Kevork Djansezian / AFP
Still, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been attempts to prohibit the use of other languages. During slavery, slaves were prohibited from speaking African languages, and Native Americans were also forced to learn English and forget their languages. There have also been attempts to make English the only official language, but each and every one of these has been rebuked.
The prevalence of Spanish —and other languages to a lesser amount— brings us back to the night of the Oscars. If, as we said, historically and legally Spanish has not been banished, there are more and more people everyday who speak it, people who create movies, series and plays spoken in it, there are TV conglomerates and film studios specifically targeted for Spanish speakers, and all the large news organizations have a Spanish version of their publications, why do we still think about Spanish as a foreign language in the United States?
Something became clear after the 2019 Oscars: for Gael García and millions more, it is no longer a foreign language. Spanish has been a dominant force in all sociocultural and political aspects of life in America, so it should not be a surprise to see a movie where Spanish is spoken being nominated in the Best Movie category.
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