- Speak English! The Rise of Latinos in Baseball by Rafael Hermoso
The impact of Latinos in Major League Baseball is inescapable. Fans are acutely aware of Miguel Cabrera’s hitting exploits, Felix Hernandez’ pitching prowess, and the prominent place of Latinos within the game’s performance-enhancing drugs scandal. The most poignant feature of Rafael Hermoso’s Speak English is its attention to how language remains a persistent hurdle for Latinos to navigate in becoming major leaguers and in obtaining social acceptance on and off the playing field in U.S. society.
Organized chronologically, Speak English is inspired by Hermoso’s experience as a journalist on the baseball beat and builds on interviews he conducted with Latino players at various points in their careers. His focus on language and the challenge of cultural adaptation connects the story of Felipe Alou and Roberto Clemente in the 1950s with that of Latino stars of the “modern wave” such as Mariano Rivera and Miguel Cabrera. The biographical sketches that constitute each chapter provide compelling anecdotes about the lived experience of difference by Latinos that continues into the present. In the chapters on the fifties and the sixties, the Alou brothers (Felipe, Mateo, and Jesús) recount their experience rising through the Giants minor league system and playing in the big leagues as part of the major’s first wave of Dominicans. Each Alou describe encounters with the “Speak English” mantra. Hermoso aptly points out how varied are the memories associated with these experiences, noting that for some sharing their accounts rekindled “painful memories” while in others it provoked a “defensiveness, the impulse to protect the game that had been so good to them” (p. xviii). The accounts of the three siblings attest to the disparate reactions. The ubiquity of “Speak English” and the challenge of cultural adaptation led the elder Alou brother (Felipe) to conclude “one fact that Latins must never forget is that as ballplayers, we were, are, and always will be, foreigners in America . . . and we cannot hope that we will ever be totally accepted” (p. 11). Conversely, the youngest Alou (Jesús) insisted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when asked about Giants manager Alvin Dark’s infamous edict prohibiting the team’s Latino players from speaking Spanish. “I didn’t go through those things,” he told Hermoso. “Each person has his story and his own pain. My story is good and I have no pain” (p. 47). A stance, Hermoso speculates, likely rooted in a desire to protect the game that had given him so much.
Hermoso’s book also deals with the repercussion players such as Vic Power, Orlando Cepeda, and Pedro Martínez faced for publicly confronting the imperative of “Speak English” and its underlying cultural assumptions. Those who resisted were often labeled a “militant” Latino. For Felipe Alou, this label ironically noted that the individual “understood the power of language and recognized that robbing someone of it was like stealing their ‘personality, human rights, the civil rights of an individual’” (p. 12). Vic Power definitely felt the sting of his “refusal” to abide by the time’s racial and cultural mores. His experience led Power to conclude, “Racism is jealousy, envy that a white man doesn’t think it fair for a black man to live in the same conditions as him” (p. 20). Other testimonials [End Page 164] likewise spoke to the lingering scars of racism. Jose Rijo observed, “Racism still exists in the United States. . . . A Latino has to work twice as hard, first of all because you have blacks ahead of you, secondly, because you’re Latino” (p. 89).
While readers are forewarned that Speak English is “representative, and not comprehensive” (p. xxiii), the book’s scope and interpretative analysis merit critique. One can appreciate the nod to Latinos in the Negro Leagues made through its brief mention of Cuban great Martin Dihigo. Yet this makes the absence of Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso all the more noticeable. Mi...