On May 1st of this year Voces de la Frontera arranged a statewide march for the rights of immigrants, immigrant families, and migrant workers aimed at sending a mesage to the state of Wisconsin about the economic values, through both commerce and labor, of the Latinx communities within the state. Having learned about it when a Voces leader visited our class, I planned to attend. Instead of driving to Waukesha for Un Dia sin Latinxs , as it was called, I elected to meet the bus at the nearby Public House. It’s a very short trip from my apartment, and sitting there, looking at the raised fist emerging from the woodwork, made me think about the irony of my situation. I was planning to travel to Waukesha to involve myself in a community action yet I’ve actually visited few places in my own neighborhood since moving here. I was happy to see a familiar face from class appear when M entered, and wondered how big that banner they hauled onto the bus actually was; as one woman said, it looked big enough to contain a body. We saw exactly how big it was later, as dozens of people carried it down the street.
I chose to pay for the bus ride for two reasons. First, I don’t know where Waukesha is and had no idea what the parking situation would be, but mainly because I felt that the bus ride could be a valuable observation opportunity, a chance to hear the preparatory rhetoric. I expected a journey filled with exhortations to unite, excite, and channel the energies of the riders toward one common cause and goal.
I was wrong. Aside from collecting the money – hilariously trying to collect a ticket from the driver – and boarding the bus, the Voces representative did nothing but talk to the person next to him. I saw a kairotic moment wasted. No one near us was really talking about the event, either, just making general chit-chat. Mand I took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better and discuss our connections to different Latinx communities, hers in Miami and mine in Albuquerque, and our mutual interest in film.
Once we got there, what interested me the most, naturally, was the use of language. The crowd was obviously quite ethnically diverse (a wonderful thing to see), and this was clearly acknowledged. While it seemed safe to assume that many if not most of the Spanish-speakers there also understood English (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit), it seemed equally safe to assume, this being the American Midwest, that this was not reciprocal and that not all the English speakers spoke Spanish at all or, like me, had limited understanding. Both languages were heard from the speakers, but Spanish took precedence; English, when spoken, was used to explain to those who didn’t understand what had just been said in Spanish. While the size of the crowd was impressive, and the signs and slogans powerful, I enjoyed this subtle reversal of language subordination the most. This was unapologetically a Spanish-speaking event. The initial rally weighed heavily toward Spanish, and the slogans – whose printed forms were about 50/50 between the languages – were almost always spoken in Spanish, with one not being spoken in English near me until halfway through the march, finally letting me know that the last word was “defeated.” This allowed everyone to follow the rhetoric, but also modeled the kindness and consideration for other languages that Spanish so frequently does not get in America, and that other languages may not get at all.
The message, while unspoken, was clear to anyone who listened, and served a legitimate and important purpose: to show that in this event, on this day, this Latinx community would not assume a secondary position, a back seat, and Spanish would not be a “foreign” language here. English was used to be inclusive; not, as is common, the default.
On the long march I saw and heard the energy and focus I had missed on the bus. Interchanging slogans were chanted constantly, and the entire town seemed to be watching. White, Latinx, and African-Americans marched for two miles by the thousands, some with their dogs, and unlike at other political rallies or parades, no one seemed to be there for any other purpose. Their energy was channeled directly down the street and toward the courthouse.
The speeches at the end of the march – and man, did my knees and foot hurt at the end of that march, making me feel inordinately aged – offered more English, either as a translation of entire speeches made in Spanish or, as in the case of a student with immigrant parents, made in English in the first place. His speech was not translated into Spanish, and this stands behind my assumption that most if not all of the Spanish-speaking attendees could get by in English just fine. Spanish was, it seems, not used in this event for purposes of comprehension, but rather to assert identity, to establish presence: a rhetorical choice made all the more effective by the fact that it wasn’t openly stated.
At least, not in English.