While teaching a mass media course at a state university last year, I got into a heated debate with my students about the increasing presence of Latinos in the Carolinas. Many of the students spoke of their frustration with the language barrier; they said Latinos should learn English because there are more of us (Americans) than them (Hispanics).
I raised the issue that many Latinos are American citizens, and according to every population study released over the last 20 years, they will be the majority population in the United States within the next 20 years. In fact, I said, the Latino population in Mecklenburg County has increased by 500 percent since 1990 and Charlotte has the largest number of Latino residents in the state. So, if you applied some of these students' logic, we actually should be learning Spanish since Latinos will be the majority population soon.
That last statement led to anarchy in the classroom, with students becoming extremely emotional and outraged that I suggested they think rationally and adjust their attitudes to help communicate effectively with this burgeoning population. I was met with statements like, "Who do they think they are -- coming over here and taking our jobs?"
"What jobs?" I replied. "We're in a recession."
That was followed by, "Why can't they learn our language and culture?"
"What language?" I asked. "The broken English that we speak every day."
Let's keep it real. How are we in the Carolinas going to talk about anybody's way of speaking? American culture? Are we talking about baseball and apple pie, or are we talking about violence, hatred, greed and fear?
Of course, that led to further outrage. So I asked a different kind of question: "What do you like about Latinos?" The answers: "Baseball, music and food."
I discovered that the problem isn't the Latinos who entertain us, it's Latinos who may live next door to us. For some reason, those are two completely different things. It's all right to be Latino as long as you can bat .500, dance, act and sing; it's all right for us to eat Hispanic cuisine and listen to salsa, merengue, tejano and reggaeton. But that's where the buck stops.
Latinos can clean our houses, but they can't live in them. They can mow the lawn, but they can't own the lot. Sound familiar? The same thing happened to African Americans for decades before and during the struggle for civil rights, and still happens in many ares of the country today. When it comes to truly embracing other cultures, it seems as though it can happen on familiar American terms only.
The real problem is not the influx of Latinos, but our attitudes about change. People are afraid of Latinos because Latinos are not here to assimilate. They're here to build better lives while preserving their rich cultural heritage. They're not thinking about us and not measuring themselves by our cultural standards, and that scares the hell out of people.
What would happen if you learned Spanish? You would have a marketable skill that would allow you to communicate with more than half of the world's population, including your neighbors and co-workers. What would happen if Latinos became the majority? Nothing. Sure, there would be cultural changes, but since 90 percent of the wealth in this country is controlled by 10 percent of the population, we'd be the same, economically.
In many countries, most citizens speak more than one language fluently. The United States is one of the few places on earth where most people speak only one language. Why don't we challenge ourselves? Why don't we embrace all of our neighbors and learn about everyone's history, traditions, achievements, talents and skills? In the process, we might learn something about ourselves.
Dr. Nsenga Burton is a filmmaker and an assistant professor of television and film at Johnson C. Smith University.