Column: Mexican-American’s Dilemma: He’s Unfit in Either Language

”... A Los Angeles Police Department officer was beating a Spanish-speaking motorist, calling him a dirty Mexican. Occupants in the motorist’s car yelled out to the police officer that the person he was beating was not a Mexican, but that he was a Nicaraguan.

“At that moment the officer stopped beating him and obtained medical help for him.”

So testified a psychiatric social worker at a hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in December of 1968.

The testimony gives some insight into the complicated subject of the differences amoung the Spanish-speaking people in the United States.

Mexican-Americans, about 8 million of the 10 million Spanish-speaking people in the country, are, ironically, among the most abused of this minority simply because they’re Americans. This holds true for Puerto Ricans who are also Americans.


Non-American Spanish-speaking people, like Nicaraguans, Argentinians and Colombians, are as the police officer knew instantly, treated with more respect.

The reason may be that Americans, originally immigrants to this country, show more consideration for other immigrants than they do for indigenous people like Mexican-Americans and Indians.

Because of the civil rights movement, there has been an intense search for Spanish-speaking teachers, journalists, social workers, salesmen, etc.

Invariably, when found, these specialists turn out to be non-American Spanish-speaking people—Cubans, Central Americans, South Americans and native Mexicans.

The reason is simple. Non-American Spanish-speaking people have a better education—and so speak good Spanish—and assimilate well into Anglo society because they came here expressly to do this.

The Mexican-American, meanwhile, many of whom speak neither good Spanish nor good English, are victims of an educational system which purports to “Americanize” them while downgrading their ethnic background.

For instance, the first truly bilingual education program in this country was set up not for Mexican-Americans but for Cubans in the wake of the Cuban crisis. Bilingual education was made available for Cuban refugees at Florida’s Dade County schools in 1963.

Yet, as late as December 1968, educators testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that Mexican-American children were being punished for speaking Spanish on school grounds in other parts of the country.

Cubans today, then, have a better chance of obtaining jobs requiring bilingual people—now that Spanish has been discovered as an asset instead of a liability—than do Mexican-Americans.

Belated bilingual education programs for Mexican-Americans are geared toward using the Spanish language as a tool only until the Chicano kid has learned enough English to overcome the “problem” of speaking Spanish. These are not truly bilingual programs, which should be teaching of both languages on an equal basis.

The truth of the matter is that despite our talk in the Southwest about “our great Spanish heritage” and the naming of our towns and streets in Spanish, the Spanish language has never been taken seriously by American educators even in areas where both languages could be learned together and correctly.

Too often the difference between a Mexican-American and non-American Spanish-speaking person is that the non-American can speak better Spanish than the Mexican-American—and so is more qualified for the emerging bilingual jobs.

And the difference between the Mexican-American and the Anglo-American is that the Anglo speaks better English than the Mexican-American and so is better equippped for the more conventional jobs.

The pattern could change when the American educational system is as considerate of Mexican-Americans as it was of Cubans in 1963.