The castro conundrum: Languages and nationAL identity

Ruben Navarrette recently wrote: “Julián Castro is going through his own personal version of the Spanish Inquisition.The 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful keeps being pestered about not speaking Spanish fluently by white journalists on the East Coast whose understanding of Mexican Americans is a taco short of a combination plate .” Navarette also mentioned that Beto O’Rourke’s Spanish was not very good and that Gaelic was not a language he was going to use anytime soon. The point is no one would say that an O’Rourke can’t be Irish if he didn’t speak (Irish) Gaelic. But language is an important part of a national or cultural identity. But I don’t care, as an ordinary citizen how well Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro speak Spanish. I am more interested in their ideas and character.

I appreciate Castro’s very honest answer reported by Navarette:

“In my grandparents’ time and mom’s time, Spanish was looked down upon. You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. … People, I think, internalized this oppression about it, and basically wanted their kids to first be able to speak English. And I think that in my family, like a lot of other families, that the residue of that … is that there are many folks whose Spanish is not that great. ” I am glad he said his parent’s and grandparent’s time because it has been a long time since Spanish-speaking children were physically punished at school for speaking Spanish. And “punished” sounds like physical punishment.

Navarrette also said: “I have a confession: During my 20s, I pretended that I didn’t speak Spanish. In fact, I spoke it pretty well — at least compared with many other Mexican Americans. I could converse with my grandparents, who spoke no English. And later, when I started working full time for newspapers, my Spanish improved. Only when I was in Mexico City, meeting with academics or government officials, did I feel out of my depth. “

As a former AP Reader in Spanish let me say that Beto’s Spanish is fair to good but not great I am quite certain he would not get a 5 on an AP Spanish test. So if Linda Chavez or Linda Ronstadt (both have Mexican ancestry) or Mr. Castro don’t speak Spanish that is almost to be expected of people of a certain milieu It is very common for heritage speakers not have as well developed a language as educated native speakers. I speak Gaelic quite well and can read and write it. I have worked at it for over 50 years (and I am still learning . I feel the disadvantage of not having been educated formally. For example I have trouble with bigger numbers and numerical concepts.) I listen to the language and read it regularly. But I do not have the fluency of an educated native speaker.

And I found out something else: my grandparent’s Gaelic was very inadequate also because they were not formally educated in that language. It wasn’t their fault. And in English, they spoke with a very thick accent and dialect all of their lives. They spoke the language of the croft, of the dock, of the kitchen So I am never ashamed that my Gaelic isn’t perfect. There is an old saying “Tha Gàidhlig briste na Gàidhlig nas fheàrr na Gàidhlig or”El gaélico roto es mejor que ningún gaélico (Broken Gaelic is better than no Gaelic at all). And the same can be said for Spanish. In fact, when learning Spanish I found that the sounds of Gaelic and some of the vocabulary were helpful. The one thing growing up in a household were more than one language was spoken and sung was that all of us were very receptive to learning foreign languages. So my sister is fluent in Spanish too (She was a Fulbright scholar in Peru) and her husband is fluent in Spanish as well (he was raised in Panama and Mexico)

One has to work at learning a language and cultivating it by reading it etc. And being a heritage speaker is not the same as being a native speaker living and being educated in a native speaker environment. My Portuguese is not perfect ( I get little practice today and invariably lapse into Spanish) but I can read it well (the last skill you lose) and with effort write it reasonably well. I can communicate orally also but I don’t pretend ever to be a Portuguese scholar I just say “Posso me defender em português” (I can defend myself….) Gaels have the same history of marginalization and if I may say much worse than that Italians, French-Canadians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Mexican-Americans have endured for the simple reason is Italian, Spanish, French are great culture languages, great world languages.

When I grew up there was not a single Gaelic book in our house. I first saw written Gaelic as comments in Scottish song books (the name of the melody) and as slogans in clan histories (though many are in French and Latin which were great prestige languages). Italian, Spanish, and French have a great world literature and are commonly taught in schools and have prestige (Italian songs and opera are commonly used in commercials and movies, the same is true for French and Spanish).

In the Auld Country, as I found out to my astonishment in the 1960’s, Gaelic was mostly considered with contempt as the language of criminality and terrorism (IRA Irish nationalism) as well as ignorance and dirt. There was an open contempt for Highlanders (Gaels) and they were called “Teuchtars”. Many well-to-do Scots were almost entirely anglicized and more English than the English. I will be very honest: I felt out a great culture disconnect with Scottish women I did meet (I met few Gaels mostly Anglicized well-to do women). My only friends were people in the musical community because we shared a love for traditional music. But as I was not a great artist I could not make a life in that world or community, just an occasional visitor.

And the debate goes on: Can you be a Gael and not speak the language? The answer is, of course, you can be.

But I would say this: a Gael does not HATE his language and his ancestral origin and is not ashamed of the (probably) humble origins of his people. For most people of Irish or Scottish origin Gaelic is a remote ancestral language spoken generations ago by SOME of their ancestors (pre 1860 or pre 1790). There is the memory of the language for some and perhaps a few words or expressions. But that’s all. For 99% of all people of Gaelic ancestry there is no living memory of a Gaelic speaking community. If there is no community at all (and Gaelic today is, on the brink of community extinction) the language becomes ceremonial and folkloric only. When this happen no new songs or poems will be written and no new books.

Similarly, Hispanic-Americans and Mexican American do NOT have to be AP Spanish scholars to have an identity.

It is very strange really but I finally realized in my 20’s everything I knew about Celtic culture, religion, history came via English, ultimately. I have Scandinavian ancestors too but do not speak Old Norse nor any Scandinavian language so I have (almost) zero knowledge or interest in Vikings (a traditional enemy of Gaels by the way) or Scandinavia.

Much of what we consider the Gaelic character is transmitted via English. It is true my people lived on the fringe of the English-speaking world and were conscious that English wasn’t the only language in the world. And this is what made us cosmopolitan and comfortable in Latin America and India and other places. And Munros do not have a single race. I have met Munros from Chile, from India for Jamaica, from Africa. The norm, among ordinary working class people, is the intermarriage. Returning to study at Eaton or Oxford was only for Anglicized elites.

What is an identity?

By the way, my wife was a monolingual Spanish speaker. If I hadn’t spoken Spanish and shared her religious faith I would never have gotten to first base. Knowing my wife changed my life. And I don’t have to say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. For one, I decided in my 20’s never to live or study in Scotland -something I had always wanted to do. As a younger person I dreamed of getting married wearing a kilt and having pipers. I got married in a blue suit and we had Spanish guitars. (I did wear a Munro tartan tie my father’s and he wore HIS father’s Munro tartan tie).

My wife -then my girlfriend- asked me why I didn’t want to marry someone from my own culture and language.

I said to her in Spanish that SHE was of my culture and language -we were both Christians in the Roman Catholic tradition for centuries.

We belonged to the same culture -Western Christendom. I didn’t care where I lived or what language my children would speak. I would live where I could make a living and speak to my children in my wife’s tongue.

I would raise my children in my wife’s religion the religion of my people -the Gaels. My family was not English and did not belong to the Church of England. My father’s parish priest Father Collins spoke Spanish fluently and so did my uncle who had worked in Chile -the Scots are a wandering cosmopolitan people. Father Collins studied at the Scots College (then at Valladolid) . And I told her , in my house, Spanish would have an official status. Our house would be part of la Hispanidad and I swore she could visit her home as often as possible and her family could visit us as often is possible.

The one thing I could not promise was that I could live in her hometown and home country. I had to live where I could have a career.

I told her I could not be happy sleeping on her mother’s couch or eking out an existence. Living like that would make me hate her hometown and her country. By the way I applied for hundreds of jobs and worked (marginally) in her home country. But realized early there was no future for me there. I told my friend (my future wife) America and life in America was my future and destiny.

Could she marry me under those circumstances? She hesitated but said yes. I promised her I would always work had and be true to her. We have been friends for 46 years and married for 37 years. It hasn’t always been easy. The one who never or rarely travels is me. One has responsibilities to dogs to a house to bills to a garden. When you are young your mother and father and aunts and uncles can take care of things for you and you are footloose and fancy-free. When you are a man you suffer what men must because you have adult responsibilities. That’s a big lesson I have learned. But as I write my wife and one of her Spanish-speaking daughters are visiting her hometown with our granddaughter -whose father is Mexican-American. I believe it a very safe bet that 1) our granddaughter will be raised as a Roman Catholic 2) she will be raised as a native Spanish speaker as all our children were raised.

What is an identity? Behavioral, cultural or personal characteristics of a person that are recognizable to identify that person as a member of a group. We suffer an identity crisis as a result of the pressures external and internal conflicts There is an enormous pressure for youth to conform especially in the military, public school and in work. It is only in the private life that one can live entirely freely.

For myself, personally, it was very difficult to admit that I could not personally resuscitate Gaelic culture and that the tartan I wore was really a shroud for a lost world that could never be recovered. I turned my back on my youthful notion of wanted to study, live and work in Scotland. I did not turn my back on my love for my parents and grandparents and Scotland but my parents and grandparents are all dead and essentially the Scotland they knew is dead also. I have visited Scotland (and Ireland) several times but chiefly as tourist and attendee to Celtic Colours musical events. I made a conscious decision not to study in Scotland or attempt to work there or in Britain.

And instead I lived and worked in Spain and in the USA. I decided that education would be important for our children but the main education would be in religion, music and Spanish and English. Gaelic would be, like Latin, on the backburner. I taught some Latin and Gaelic to our children but only intermittently and without any continuity or seriousness. My attitude was that if they were interested in Latin, Greek or Gaelic I would help them but that they should study useful languages and get useful degrees (Bilingual Certificates k-6, Spanish k-12 and Engineering). I proud that the engineer minored in Spanish literature (not Spanish but Spanish literature.) to give you some idea of my daughter’s cultural background she was a Hispanic AP National Scholar. She had 5’s on In AP English literature US history, European history,, Mathematics, Science as well as Spanish. Like all of our children she feels at home in Spanish as in English.

There is an enormous pressure for youth to conform especially in the military, public school and in work. I remember my shock when our son, about age 10 or 11, told people HE didn’t speak Spanish either. He found it a burden to be considered bilingual or Hispanic (he grew out of that). When I was in school I was ridiculed for reading Burns with a real Scottish accent and correcting the teacher who said, quite ignorantly, that Burns wrote in Gaelic. I had never spoken in public before but I said Burns wrote in Doric Scots or Lallans and Highland Scots (Gaelic) was a completely different language and one Burns did not speak, read or write though he listened to Highland music and songs and appreciated them. You would have thought I had come from Mars. Needless to say I was cruelly treated by many of my classmates. It was only when our history teacher, Mr Adler showed us the film Culloden I was able to interpret some of the interviews for him and the class. Mr. Adler, whose family survived the Holocaust by emigrating from Austria to the USA, told the class, “Mr. Munro is not WASP he is not even English. He is a Highlander and a Gael. And he knows about persecution, poverty and exile.If you get to know him you might learn something. He is also, I hear say, quite a Spanish scholar. No doubt due to his early bilingualism. And he knows some Yiddish as well.” That happened more almost 50 years ago but I still remember clearly those two days in my high school my “Gaelic” days. It is only in the private life that one can live entirely freely but one one can only have an identity, truly as part of a family, faith community and nation. For me, I hope our children always value their cultural inheritance but in the long run the most enduring cultural inheritage will be their faith tradition, not their race or national origin(s).