What Tom Brokaw Really Means By Saying “Latinos Should Work Harder at Assimilation”


Another day, another baseless racist accusation from people who have obviously never looked at a single statistic in their lives. As Latinx in this new age of constant disrespect, I feel like Mariah Carey asking, “Why you so obsessed with me?” This time I’m dedicating my bad karaoke rendition to Tom Brokaw who had the actual audacity to suggest that Latinx “should work harder at assimilation.” First of all, the reality is that people all over the world have the shocking ability to *gasp* learn multiple languages and *gasp* code switch so that’s really not the issue here. This xenophobic excuse to single out and demean certain groups is a tale as old as the US’s horrific treatment of people deemed “other.” What is the issue, is the idea that somehow where we come from and who we are as a result is an offensive disadvantage that is counter to the values of the US.

It’s also worth pointing out that assimilating and learning English are two different things. According to Merriam Webster “Assimilation refers to the process through which individuals and groups of differing heritages acquire the basic habits, attitudes, and mode of life of an embracing culture.” It does not, however, say “assimilate” on the statue of Liberty, or that speaking two languages is forbidden. And if I’m not mistaken the English colonizers arrived not knowing a word of indigenous dialect and made no efforts to assimilate. Brokaw’s also claimed that “they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities.” You know, because he’s so worried about what’s best for the children. But I don’t see any outrage directed at “codified communities” like Chinatowns, Mennonite communities, or Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. Assimilation takes on a very different meaning when applied to Latinx because it is essentially a call for us to make ourselves invisible because we are always too much or too little of something to fit in. And it’s based on the even more erroneous idea that once we fit in we’ll be deserving of the title “American” or “citizen” — something that has been proven time and again to be a false promise.

The Pew Research Center 2015 study found that English proficiently is growing and that Spanish at home has been declining over the last 13 years. But to me, this isn’t something that should be celebrated or touted as a way to disprove Brokaw’s statements. Language is so much more than words, it’s how we understand and construct our reality. When the colonizers arrived the first thing they would do is outlaw the local language and forbid the use of their customs, now they simply suggest that we should to do it to ourselves and act like we should be happy about it. For all intents and purposes speaking more than one language is a skill as well as a way to build empathy and experience things we don’t necessarily have the words for in only one language. As it is, for many of us Spanish isn’t even our true mother tongue — but for so many Latinx it’s all we have left and it still bears the weight of our histories, our families, and our traditions.

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