Commentary: All of the time I was growing up, going to school, and eventually graduating from business school, I was constantly told by mentors that a person should master a second language in order to develop a niche and to gain an advantage. Growing up in northern New Mexico, I was constantly exposed to Spanish through relatives and friends. However, Spanish in that part of the world is archaic Spanish, which is not used in modern Spanish-speaking countries. Therefore, I had to learn to speak modern Spanish.
I did so by buying a Que Tal Spanish textbook, and constantly listening to tapes of Spanish traditional and rock and roll groups. I never was without a Spanish-English dictionary on my person so that I could look up a word or phrase with which I was unfamiliar. I would then make it a point to use the word or phrase as quickly and as often as possible so that it could be cemented into my modern Spanish vocabulary. When I moved to Mexico City in the 1990s, I felt like my Spanish went to graduate school. I knew that I was completely fluent in the language when I started to dream in Spanish.
Today, I take pride that I can do television and radio interviews, and jump up in front of an audience and give a presentation in Spanish without most people knowing that this is not my first language. Having the ability to speak a second language has given me opportunities in international trade that I would never have experienced if I were monolingual.
Therefore, I was greatly disturbed last week when I read an article in the New York Times that told of two friends, Ana Suda and Mimi Hernandez, bumping into each other at the Town Pump Convenience store in Havre, Montana, where they had gone to pick up some food items. The two friends started chatting in Spanish when they were overhead by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who asked them where they were born. After Suda informed him she was born in El Paso, Texas, and Hernandez in central California, he insisted that he see their identifications.
Suda pulled out her phone and recorded the confrontation. She also notified the officer that he was illegally racially profiling the two women. The officer denied that he was doing this, and stated, “It had nothing to do with that. It’s the fact that it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.” After 20 minutes, the officer returned their identifications, but Suda was not done with the encounter and told the Times that she would be filing an official complaint with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which issued a statement that the officer’s conduct was under review. Border Patrol officers cannot detain people based solely on their race or ethnicity. According to the Times, courts have ruled that neither can they detain people based on their language.
The change in U.S. direction towards more isolation in the world, scapegoating immigrants as a major root of the country’s problems, and the Trump administration’s push to restrict immigration to the U.S. all seem to be coalescing to produce incidents such as the one in which Suda and Hernandez were involved.
Would the officer have questioned the women if they were speaking Chinese, Russian, or French? These are also languages that are not predominantly spoken in Montana. And Spanish isn’t new to that state. Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho had Spanish sheepherders tending to their flocks going back to the nineteenth century. Spanish has been spoken in the western part of the U.S. much longer than English has.
In the western part of the U.S., many Spanish-speaking Americans have left states such as my home state of New Mexico to go to places such as Utah, Montana, and Wyoming in search of work and a better life. My paternal great-grandparents sold their ranch in Guadalupita, New Mexico in Mora County to follow their son Ernesto, who got a job with the railroad in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They both died and are buried there, hundreds of miles from their ancestral homes. The search for better opportunities probably brought Suda and Hernandez to Montana.
Speaking a second language is an insight to a different culture. I had a literary professor tell me that “language is the most tangible part of a culture,” and that “learning the language is the best insight to understanding the culture.” We need to encourage our kids and grandkids to learn different languages so that they can go out and understand the world and communicate with people from different countries. We need to instill in them that a second language will open up doors for them that they never dreamed of, and will make them more attractive to employers who operate divisions around the globe.
We do not need to have incidents occur where speaking a language other than English in this country automatically makes you a suspect who has to prove your right to be in this country as a citizen. This discourages and ostracizes young people from speaking a language other than English. Yes, the Border Patrol has a role in keeping our nation secure from people illegally attempting to enter this country and from contraband. However, the political and social turmoil that the U.S. is currently experiencing does not give them the right to become bullies or step all over people’s constitutional rights.
Jerry Pacheco is Executive Director of the International Business Accelerator, a non-profit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network, and the President/CEO of the Border Industrial Association. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or email@example.com