If you followed the last American election, you might have noticed how Spanish seemed to play a role in politics. Hillary Clinton offered a version of her website “en español” and often translated her Facebook posts - as President Obama occasionally does. Her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, is fluent in Spanish and speaks Spanish in public regularly, most notably delivering a whole speech in Spanish on the United States Senate. On his first rally, he spoke a mere 20 seconds in English before addressing the crowd in the language of Cervantes.
On the opposite side, two Republican candidates were fluent in Spanish: Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. (Senator Ted Cruz also claimed to have a degree of fluency in Spanish, which Senator Rubio publicly questioned.) Ultimately, they were all defeated by Donald Trump who, despite visiting Mexico during the campaign, didn’t seem as concerned about Spanish. He only used it to make the famous (and highly questionable) remark “we have some bad hombres here” at a presidential debate.
But why was Spanish featured so prominently in this election cycle? Because there are about 52 million of Spanish speakers in the United States - more than in Spain or Colombia, for example. In fact, the United States is only behind Mexico in the number of Spanish speakers. Which brings us to the main question: why are there so many Spanish speakers in the United States?
Chances are that “migration” was your immediate answer to the question we asked above. After all, the United States has received migrants from pretty much everywhere during the last century. Even a small language like Polish was a considerable minority in the U.S. in the wake of the second world war. But current immigrants from Latin American countries like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic can’t be the only reason why so many places in the Southern part of the U.S. have Spanish names - or do you think Los Angeles became Los Angeles twenty years ago?
Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, the four biggest cities in California, all have something in common. Yes, you might have guessed it this time - a Spanish name. All of these cities can be traced back to the 18th century, when much of what is now the South of the United States and modern-day Mexico belonged to the Spanish Empire.
Now, for a little bit of history.
In the 15th century, Portugal and Spain set out into the sea to discover new continents, places and maritime routes to parts of the world they already knew existed. Gradually they reached the coast of Africa and reached America, where they tried to established their own colonies in the new-found, highly productive and exotic lands. In fact, one of the first cities founded overseas by the Spanish was Saint Augustine, Florida.
They took new products to Europe, like potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and coffee. From their homeland, they brought diseases for which the natives had no defenses, missionaries to preach the Bible and the official language of the empire, Castilian. Not that the Holy Book was the only way of getting the population to learn the official language. Spanish settlers destroyed villages and repopulated them with Spaniards all over the Americas. And, perhaps following the example of Portuguese settlers, fathered numerous children with local women.
Fast-forward to the 18th century, and much of the Americas (with the notable exception of Brazil, controlled by Portugal) was under Spanish rule. The empire had a strong currency, established cities from Argentina to California and developed agricultural and ranching techniques. Then came the war with the French. During the 19th century many countries in Latin America gained their independence - including Mexico in 1821 - and Spain lost territory in North America to the French. One of these territories was Louisiana, which was sold to the United States later on.
The Mexican-American war soon followed, and the United States acquired large pieces of land: the modern territory of California, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, along with parts of Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming. Many of these areas had a high number of Spanish speakers, something that remains true today.
It now becomes clear that the migration that ensued to the Southern States was not only based on economical grounds - but also on historical and linguistic grounds. Hispanics have inhabited part of the United States continuously since the 16th century!
Let’s finally talk about Hispanic migrants.
But, of course, the history we’ve covered so far doesn’t explain why there are so many Spanish speakers in the United States. The number of speakers skyrocketed since the 1960s - from less 5% to more than 16% today.
The first wave of immigration came from Cuba, when thousands of people flew from Fidel Castro’s regime. There were about 71000 Cubans in the United States in 1950; by the end of 1970, there were already 638000. Meanwhile, thousands of Puerto Ricans also arrived in New York City, where thousands settled in the Spanish Harlem.
After years of political turmoil and the authoritarian regimes that were marked by violence, guerrilla wars and economic struggles, a second wave happened in the 1970s and 1980s originating in Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Many of these Central Americans arrived undocumented, and may still account for hundreds of thousands of people who remain illegal aliens on U.S. soil.
And then, of course, there’s the continuous migrant flux from Mexico, the world’s biggest Spanish speaking country. Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans alone make up more than 75% of the Latino population of the United States. Central Americans come next, mostly from El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Finally, 6% of the Hispanic population comes from South American countries like Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia. Altogether, the community coming from Spanish speaking countries is larger than any other language group.
But why do they still speak Spanish?
You might think that people who arrived in the United States in 1960 and 1970s would be more than used to speaking in English and that the use of Spanish should have decreased. But that isn’t necessarily true.
A lot of migrants arrived in the already existing small Spanish communities in the U.S., which kept them in touch with their native language. And their children, many of whom born in America, where raised in these Spanish-speaking communities. Even as the new generations are brought up in an English-speaking country and may think of English as their native language, 69% of all Hispanic households still use both Spanish and English at home.
This might be why an impressive 80% of second-generation Hispanics speak fluent Spanish. Among third-generation Hispanics, around 40% speak fluently. Can you imagine speaking the mother language of your grandpa? Perhaps more than any other ethnic group, Hispanics keep their cultural heritage well alive.
For example, the thousands of Germans, Italians and Polish migrants who came to the United States in the first half of the 20th century stopped using their native languages after one or two generations. So, even though the number of Americans identifying as Italian, Polish and German grew over time, the number of speakers of each language decreased steadily. Hispanics are taking another route - a 2013 Pew Research study showed that an overwhelming 95% of Hispanic adults think it’s important that future generations speak Spanish.
The future of Spanish speakers in the United States.
With this in mind, what is the future of Spanish speakers in the United States? Only more growth. On average, the Hispanic population is younger and healthier than the general American population. And following a pattern of teaching Spanish to the next generation, there will be an increasing number of bilinguals or second-language speakers. Combined with a steady flux of migrants from countries in the Hispanosphere, the number of Spanish speakers in the United States could reach 132.8 million in 2050. Or, in other terms, about 30.2% of the total estimated population for 2050.