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Nepantla: Views from South 4.3 (2003) 523-560

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Coloniality of Power, Immigration, and the English-Spanish Asymmetry in the United States

Ana Margarita Cervantes-Rodríguez and Amy Lutz


The asymmetry of languages is not a question of a person knowing one better than the other, but it is a question of power.

—Walter Mignolo, Local Histories, Global Designs

This essay explores the structuring logics of the English-Spanish asymmetry in the United States by bridging world-systems analysis, humanities-based analyses of language asymmetries, and sociological approaches to language, immigrant incorporation, identity formation, and ethnic politics. By focusing on the relation power/ language, we hope to underscore the importance of colonialism, imperialism, and immigration as constitutive historical processes leading to the formation of the Latino ethnicity and the development of English-Spanish asymmetry in the United States. Our essay illustrates how despite an unprecedented, continuous rise in immigration from Spanish-speaking countries over the past four decades, the English-Spanish asymmetry has been reinforced by several interrelated logics that include the hegemony of English in the global geopolitics of language as well as strong social norms, values, and social movements that resist a rise in the status of Spanish. We argue that coloniality of power informs power relations and regimes designed to regulate behavior, including language-regulating mechanisms that have shaped the English-Spanish asymmetry in the United States through global and national projects (e.g., nation-building, educational, and media projects) entangled in translocal histories.

Colonialism, Imperial Conflicts, and the Language Question

By the end of the sixteenth century, the Castilian tongue (lengua castellana) was one of the major languages through which global imaginaries of the modern/colonial/capitalist world-system were articulated. Clare [End Page 523] Mar-Molinero (2000, 19–39) provides a systematic analysis of a series of events that originated what she calls "the Castilinization process," or "the spread of Spanish across the globe" (35) related to the establishment of Castile as a center of power in the Iberian Peninsula, and the predominant use of the Castilian language "in situations of prestige and influence, such as the Court, the Church, in legal documents, and in the administration of the Spanish state and its empire" (21). The establishment in Toledo, Castile, of the power base of the Visigoths (who were bilingual in Germanic and Latin), after their invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, gave Castilian—by this time one of the dominant linguistic groups derived from the "Latinization" of the Iberian Peninsula during its incorporation into the Roman Empire—a first impulse as a potentially dominant lingua (see also Penny 1997). The second impulse came from the role of Castile in defeating the Arabs during La Reconquista, and particularly, "the recapture of Toledo as the Christian capital of Spain in 1085" (Mar-Molinero 2000, 20). The third important impulse was the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469, which consolidated the political and military position of Castile within the European kingdoms. Finally, the ascendance of Castilian was hastened in 1492 by two events of particular importance: (1) the publication of the Gramática de la Lengua Castellana, the first grammar in Castilian, a Romance vernacular language, and (2) the beginning of the colonization process in the Americas, substantially supported by the Catholic Monarchs (Mar-Molinero 2000, 21–23).

With colonization, Castilian became a common language spoken in the first European commercial and military circuits across the Atlantic. It was also widely employed in the first descriptions of the geography, climate, maritime routes, and environment, in legal transactions, and in civil, military, and ecclesiastical records of the colonies (as well as to develop enduring myths about the aborígenes of the "New World") (Mignolo 1995, 2000). Eventually, the use of Castilian and its asymmetric interaction with other languages spoken in Spain (see Penny 1997), as well as pre-Columbian languages, became constitutive symbolic elements of the language question throughout the process of colonization. The Catholic evangelization of...


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