It's a good week to not speak English

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Amidst a slew of Republican debates discussing the role/implications of Mexican immigration to the United States, it’s good to be reminded of what the landscape actually looks like out there before rolling back any of that “no official State language” thing.

Today, the AV Club’s Ted VanDerWerff discusses the place of Univision in US television ratings – namely, how it’s obliterating its English language competition. In his piece, “Ratings Roundup: Univision is a big TV success story, but nobody seems to care,” he writes:

Univision is bucking any number of trends with this ratings growth (and it continued to post growth in the 2010-11 season and looks to continue that trend this year). For one thing, it’s bucking the “the network television model is dying” trend. […] The younger you go, the more Univision is reaching that audience. Though the network is still usually the fifth place network (ahead of only The CW in terms of major broadcast nets), it’s the only one growing, and the more you narrow down on younger viewers, the closer it gets to NBC. There’s every likelihood this will be the season Univision bumps NBC down to fifth in the 18-34-year-old race.

This isn’t really talked about in the media criticism game. […] Granted, the network’s programming rarely breaks 4 million viewers or a 2.0 in the 18-49-year-old demo, but that’s damned close to what NBC is pulling most nights, and, again, it’s a number that keeps growing with every passing year. […] There are reasons no one talks about this, of course. Most media critics are writing and working in English, for English-speaking audiences, and Univision still doesn’t air any non-Spanish-language programming (nor should it have to). And the network’s PR efforts have only really turned around in recent years, with those who work there finally beginning to send out the sort of ratings crowing press releases that are the norm at even The CW.

Impressive. Most impressive. Particularly that bit about young audiences, particularly in light of how many of us grew up knowing Univision and its competitor Telemundo as the channel our abuelos watched while we played in the living room and would have preferred to watch cartoons. This growth among young viewers points to something unique in the US’ Latino population. VanDerWerff writes:

The history of immigrant media in the United States has always been one of a major group moving into the country, forming its own micro-culture within the larger culture, then gradually assimilating over the course of generations. Part of this is a rich history of immigrant media. The Europeans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century would often form newspapers aimed primarily at their own communities, newspapers designed to provide a source for news in the “mother tongue,” so to speak. But as these immigrants had children who were functionally bilingual, able to speak both German and English equally well, say, then the foreign-language media sources would slowly wither and die over the course of multiple generations.

It’s entirely possible this will happen to Univision, too, 50 years down the road. But the 18-34-year-old generation of Latinos in the U.S. is increasingly a bilingual generation of second-generation immigrants, born in the U.S. and fluent in both English and Spanish. However, this audience, more and more, turns to Univision for most of its news and entertainment. There are plenty of reasons for this, including the fact that the network remains a prominent community touchstone between these younger Latinos and their immigrant parents and the fact that Univision is one of the few places earnestly discussing issues important to Latinos in today’s media landscape. But it’s still an encouraging sign for the network that as it gets older, it manages to maintain a fairly young audience, particularly compared to the other major networks.

The AV Club piece comes right on the heels of a much talked about New York Times article by Kirk Semple, entitled “Moving to U.S. and Amassing a Fortune, No English Needed.” One of the profiled immigrant entrepreneurs is Felix Sanchez, who, though having come to the United States from Mexico 40 years ago, doesn’t speak a lick of English. However, Semple writes:

Yet Mr. Sanchez has lived the great American success story. He turned a business selling tortillas on the street into a $19 million food manufacturing empire that threaded together the Mexican diaspora from coast to coast and reached back into Mexico itself.

Mr. Sanchez is part of a small class of immigrants who arrived in the United States with nothing and, despite speaking little or no English, became remarkably prosperous. And while generations of immigrants have thrived despite language barriers, technology, these days, has made it easier for such entrepreneurs to attain considerable affluence.

Many have rooted their businesses in big cities with immigrant populations large enough to insulate them from everyday situations that demand English. After gaining traction in their own communities, they have used the tools of modern communication, transportation and commerce to tap far-flung resources and exploit markets in similar enclaves around the country and the world.

“The entire market is Hispanic,” Mr. Sanchez said of his business. “You don’t need English.” A deal, he said, is only a cheap long-distance phone call or a few key strokes on the computer away. “All in Spanish,” he added.

Mr. Sanchez, 66, said he always wanted to learn English but had not had time for lessons.

“I couldn’t concentrate,” he said in a recent interview, in Spanish. “In addition, all the people around me were speaking in Spanish, too.”

Sanchez’s children, on the other hand, are fully bilingual.

These two articles, taken together, speak to something truly unique about the United States’ Latino population, namely that it has resisted total assimilation into the privileged, mainstream culture and, in so doing, challenges the very notion of a mainstream at all. At the heart of the GOP’s immigration debate – and, it’s often argued, at the heart of many of their current policies – appears to be a clinging to an America they feel is being replaced by pluralism, an America that may never really have existed for anyone at all outside of idealized memories and Norman Rockwell paintings; it’s a definition of America written by people with a very narrow experience of the country that were heretofore able to ignore everything that fell outside of their parameters. Think the 1950’s were idyllic? Find any African American person on the street with gray hair  and ask them what they thought of the fifties.

As has been pointed out approximately one-bajillion times, applying the jobs debate to the Mexican immigration debate is absurd because American kids don’t want to pick fruit. A borderfence is impractical. Stories like Mr. Sanchez’s and the numbers Univision is posting put the lie to the other tentpole of Republican immigration policy, that everyone who moves here must learn English or they will simply be burdens to the state. The articles instead point to a future where America is chock full of savvy, media literate, engaged populace of Hispanic consumers and voters, capable of conducting business perfectly well in two languages, who have refused, generation after generation, the belief that they must give up a wholehearted devotion to their culture in order to be fully American.

That’s a scary future to a certain segment of the population.