Spanish History, 101

Posted on May 5, 2020


We periodically revisit Spain in this column not simply because I like Spain, but in the U. S. today 41 million people speak Spanish as their first language, or 13% of the population. There are also nearly 12 million bilingual Spanish speakers here, like me.  In fact, the U. S. is the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico.

And in a presidential election year, all the pollsters and watchers are trying to figure out how people are going to vote, as if Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian Americans, or Estonian-Americans for that matter are going to swing in a predictable fashion: “Hispanics will vote for…yada, yada, yada.”

Spanish is the most studied language here. More than 70% of K-12 students study Spanish, and more than 50% of college students. The second most studied language is French, 12% of college and 15% of K-12 students. ¿Como esta usted? is a lot more popular than comment allez-vous? My gardener Gustavo would cock an ear at the second, but responds happily at the first, ¿bien, bien patron, y usted?

After Chinese, Spanish is the second most spoken language of the world, followed closely by English-speakers. Spanish is the official language in 20 countries, mostly in Latin America where the majority of Hispanic immigrants to the U. S. originate.

It stands to reason that a knowledge of Spain might be useful as we tackle the issues of immigration and immigrants. We all know a bit about England, right? Here’s your quick quiz.

What is the most important document in the English-speaking world? a. Magna Carta, b. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, c. Poor Richard, d. Fourteen Points

What do we know about Spain? Let me start with me. Answer: little to nothing years ago.

I first went to Spain in the late summer of 1964, sent by the USN as a newly minted Ensign to meet my ship then in the Sixth Fleet. I landed in Rota, across the bay from the more famous city of Cadiz, and lingered there a few days waiting for a flight, first to Naples, and then on to Malta where my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20) was anchored in the ancient harbor of Valetta.

I have returned to Spain frequently since then. That I speak Spanish fluently from having grown up in South America gives me a leg up.

While I look like a gringo, I speak like a Peruvian, or some suggest a Cuban or Mexican, and it throws a bit of humorous drama in my encounters with Spaniards.

When first in Seville in the winter and spring of 1970-71, working in the Archive of the Indies on my dissertation, my pronunciation of Time magazine gave me away. In Peru and the rest of Latin America, American words like “time” are pronounced pretty much like where the term originates.

So, wanting some news of home, I approached a news kiosk and pointed up to a rack of magazines and asked the clerk, “quiero comprar la revista Time, alli detras de ti. Or, I want to buy Time magazine, just behind you.

¿Que? What? he asked, with a note of annoyance.

I repeated my question.

“Ah, tíme,” he said like a Spaniard might pronounce the gringo word, teemay.

“Of course,” I answered politely, taking my teemay and going my way. Spaniards can be flinty I thought.

Indeed, there is another term for Spaniards that I’ve heard over the years, pun de honor, or pundonor, which roughly translates as honor, sometimes pride, and self respect.

The have a King today in Spain, Phillip VI, a constitutional monarchy much like England, and an immensely diverse population, from old lords and ladies to the working-class shipbuilders in Cadiz on the southwestern coast of Spain, to the bar maids of the capital, Madrid, to the bullfighters and their rabid fans in the rings of Seville. And, like all of Europe, they are nuts about fútbal, what we call soccer, and I read about the team Real Madrid and their latest scores and victories like we read about the Super Bowl.

Spain, once called Hispania and sometimes Iberia, was a part of the Roman Empire. The Romans basically imposed their culture on Hispania in a series of wars beginning in the late 2nd century and continuing until 19 B.C.E. when the Emperor Augustus incorporated all of Hispania into the Roman Empire. With Rome came the origins of modern Spanish, Christianity after the first century, many laws and customs, and a growing sense of things peculiarly and particularly “Spanish” over the next two millennia, distinguished from things French or German or English for example, each with a growing sense of its own nationality.

When Spain expanded into the “new” world, or the Americas, in the sixteenth century it created a new empire, part Spanish and part indigenous American. The intermingling of those two great races, plus the African introduced though slavery early in the conquest of the Americas, there developed the people we know today as “Latin Americans.” More later.

Published as “What do we know about Spain” Sunday April 19, 2020 in The Tucaloosa News.