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Spanish in America: Beyond Words

How did Spanish become the second most-common language in the United States after English? The answer will lead us into our country’s past, examine America’s present, and speculate on what the coming years will bring.

It wasn’t the English who established the first permanent colony in what we now call the United States, but the Spanish. In 1513, three Spanish ships led by conquistador Ponce de Leon sailed across the Atlantic and landed in present-day Florida; by 1565, the colony of San Agustin became the hub of an east-coast exploration and conquest that last from 1520 to 1570 and encompassed Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The conquistadors then expanded west, to the present-day states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Texas. All of these states now bear Spanish names (e.g. Florida ” flowery” and Colorado “colored” for the reddish silt found in the Colorado river).

In the early 19th century, due in part to the growing population of English settlers and in part to increasing unrest in the Spanish-speaking regions of North America, Spanish began to give way to English. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and started to offer land to American settlers in Texas. As people streamed into the area, an Anglo-Hispanic identity formed and led to a desire for independence from Mexico, leading to the 1835 Texas Revolution and the subsequent American annexation of huge chunks of land surrounding Texas. By that time, English speakers greatly outnumbered Spanish speakers.

Returning to modern America, we can see the effects of such an intertwined Hispanic-American history, paired with an influx of immigration from Latin America. A 2006 census found that 44.3 million people in the U.S. are Hispanic. 34 million of those speak Spanish at home. Spanish is the most commonly and widely taught language in the U.S., which has the world’s fifth-largest Spanish-speaking population.

And what about “Spanglish”? The influence of English on Spanish and Spanish on English has created a blended language that has grown from the realm of Hispanic youth and the Latino subculture to a language spoken by families and used in semi-official documents. The proliferation of Spanglish — used by speakers of both languages — is just one reminder of the intermingling cultures and histories that formed our country and that continue to shape it.

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