According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004 there were more than 41 million Hispanics living in the United States, out of a total population (then) of 294 million. This is nearly one-seventh of the population, and growing. The Hispanic population is growing three times faster than the population as a whole, and accounts for roughly half of all new population growth. This includes at least 500,000+ illegal immigrants each year from Mexico and Latin America. Today, Hispanics make up 35% of California, 28% of Arizona, 23% of Nevada, 43% of New Mexico, 20% of Colorado, 35% of Texas, 20% of Florida, 16% of New York, 15% of New Jersey, and 14% of Illinois.
Whatever other consequences, good or bad, these population and immigration trends foretell, one consequence is undeniable and already happening: the United States is becoming a de facto bilingual nation. What started as a left-wing political movement to bring bilingual education to the schools and bilingual services to government agencies, has now become a part of everyday commercial life in the country as a whole. Mainstream corporate America routinely offers Spanish-language services. And there is a growing business sector expressly dedicated to the Spanish-speaking community. Given the underlying demographic realities, this trend will continue.
A story reported this week on Fox News illustrates where this trend is heading. A Dallas-based pizza chain, Pizza Patron, announced in December that it would accept pesos, as well as U.S. currency, at its 60 restaurants across the country. Despite widespread outrage and opposition to its original announcement, the company has decided to adopt this policy permanently. The company, which is dedicated to serving the Hispanic community and requires all store managers to be bilingual, obviously made the economic calculation that pursuing the “Latino customer” (in the words of the CEO) was in its financial best interest. More and more companies will make the same calculation. Given the large and growing size of the Hispanic population in this country, the result will be the ongoing bilingualization of America.
One might ask, so what? After all, aren’t there Italian, and Greek, and Indian, and [fill in the blank] restaurants and businesses in the United States dedicated to serving those communities? Of course there are, but none that (as far as I know) have declared it their official policy to accept the currency of the mother country. Moreover, when the issue of bilingualism is raised in this country, we are talking about only one other language besides English — Spanish. This is a direct function of the size of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.
A person who doesn’t think the Pizza Patron story significant might also note that there are numerous countries in the world that teach their children English and accept American dollars in their stores. True. But this is the result of the enormous political, economic, and cultural power of the United States since World War II (and Great Britain before then). What does it say about our country that our own businesses now are accepting the currency of foreign countries? I confess that I do not see this as a salutary development.
The critical question, it seems to me, is whether we are becoming a truly “bilingual” nation, or a nation made up of two largely separate linguistic communities. Is the fact the corporate America now tells customers to “press 1 for English” and “press 2 for Spanish” bringing us closer together, or driving us further apart? Our future as a nation depends on the answer.