This fall colleges and universities have seen some of the largest Hispanic student enrollment ever, and next month, people from various regions of the world will observe or protest Columbus Day. Hispanics despise and revere Columbus for initiating the vast expansion of Hispanic language and culture through the Americas and the Caribbean.
Spanish has impacted the world profoundly. For example, native Spanish speakers, also called Hispanics, populate the planet in greater numbers than native English speakers, a fact which should give us pause, for one’s first language is the one that has the most profound impact on identity and worldview.
In addition, the hispanosphere is large and diverse: Spanish is the official language in 21 countries across 4 continents and the Caribbean. Literary, scientific, and peace endeavors have earned Nobel Prizes for Hispanics on both sides of the Atlantic and the equator. And lest we forget, a Hispanic wrote Don Quijote, the mother of the modern novel. Perhaps it is for these reasons that one index ranks Spanish as the world’s second most important language.
Despite the historical and contemporary impact of the Hispanic language, and the global diversity of those who speak it, in the United States we sometimes reduce the word Hispanic to a narrow racial category that over-simplifies culture and identity.
The term Hispanic is most logical when understood globally and used to indicate historical roots in the language and culture of Spain; it is language, not race or geography, that Hispanics share. We recognize a wide range of Spanish-speaking fluency—those who identify as Hispanic need not pass a test.
By training, I am a “hispanist.” Sociologists examine society, economists analyze the economy, and Hispanists study Hispanic language, literature and culture. Language is the center of inquiry, the thematic thread, the intersecting factor.
I once took a class with a Hispanic Linguistics professor who said we privilege some languages over others. Since then, I have noticed that some languages are privileged over others; for example, we make assumptions about people who speak Spanish in public—without knowing anything else about them, we might question their right to be and belong. When we hear people speak French in public, our assumptions are quite different.
The U.S. custom of limiting the word “Hispanic” to a racial category makes us fail to recognize the great global diversity among Hispanics. People with Hispanic heritage might look like Cameron Diaz or NBA star Carmelo Anthony. Hispanics can look like the Colombian-born Shakira, whose paternal line is Lebanese, or they can be of Asian heritage. A few days after I moved to Argentina in 1992, my Hispanic colleague, whose ancestors were from Europe, took me to a march to protest the bombing of a Jewish temple in downtown Buenos Aires. After that I have always remembered that many Hispanics are Jewish.
Language is fluid and there’s plenty of room for debate, so however you define the term “Hispanic,” please join me in welcoming the growing number of Hispanic students studying at Western Illinois University. Bienvenidos. I am proud we are part of the global hispanosphere.
Holly Stovall is an Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.