What Would Jefferson and Franklin Think?

Comcast to Offer Democratic Convention Coverage in Spanish, As Well As English

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Last week, the Democratic National Committee announced that Comcast, the convention's official cable TV and VOD provider, would produce and distribute bilingual convention coverage to millions worldwide.

Texas state senator and convention co-chair Leticia Van de Putte was quoted as saying: "With Spanish as the primary language of approximately 35 million Americans -- not to mention the more than 300 million Spanish-speakers outside the United States -- offering bilingual coverage of the convention makes more people feel welcome under the Democratic Party's 'big tent.' As a Texan and a Latina, I'm proud to belong to a party that embraces the Hispanic community."

As the Fourth of July looms, this democratic nod to bilingualism got me thinking about Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Heading into 1776, the U.S. was also home to a multilingual population. According to historical records, it would appear that founding fathers, Franklin and Jefferson, held opposing views on bilingualism.

In letters to his nephew Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the importance of the Spanish language as part of a recommendation about a course of study. An excerpt of his letter reads:

"Spanish. Bestow great attention on this, and endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain and Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition. The ancient history of that part of America, too, is written in that language. I send you a dictionary."

While I'm not sure where Benjamin Franklin stood on Spanish specifically, there is ample documentation of his objections to bilingualism, especially to those Germans in North America who were educating their children in German-language schools and for whom newspapers and other materials were being printed in German.

As for John Adams and the other signers of our Declaration of Independence? Who knows? We do know, however, that Hispanics played key, even heroic roles, in the American colonists' war against Great Britain. If you're a history buff, take a minute over this July Fourth weekend (between fireworks and barbecues) to learn a little more about men like Governor and General Bernardo de Galvez, Francisco de Miranda and Captain Jorge Farragut (whose son, civil war hero David Farragut, would be credited with the phrase "Damn the Torpedoes. Full Speed Ahead").

If you're a language buff, check out the The Journal of American History's round table on translations of the Declaration of Independence, specifically the translation issues involved in properly capturing certain fundamental ideas in Spanish and many other languages.

Whether you're more aligned with Jefferson or Franklin when it comes to the role of bilingualism in the U.S. is purely a personal decision. Regardless of your position, however, it continues to be important to have an informed perspective of the American Latino experience -- one that is not rooted in the oversimplification of this vibrant community as either foreign-born Spanish speakers or youthful U.S.-born English-speakers. There is a great deal of history that reflects the depth and breadth of this population. Nothing wrong with learning about the Fifth of May and the Battle of Puebla, but there's much to be learned from the Fourth of July and the role of Latinos in the battles that took place in our own backyards as our ancestors fought together for American Independence and another three-day weekend.
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