By Dr. Kenneth Reeds, Department of Foreign Languages
After Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is the second most natively spoken language in the world. Measured by population, the countries with the greatest number of Spanish-speaking people are Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Argentina and the United States. Census statistics from 2006 indicate that 15.4% of our population speaks Spanish and it seems likely that this year’s count will show an increase. A unique characteristic of our Spanish speakers is the diversity of their cultural backgrounds: the melting pot attracts people from around the Spanish-speaking world and while cultural groups often settle together, taken as a whole the US has perhaps the most diverse Spanish-speaking population in the world. Aware of this profile, I was excited to be able to attend an international conference meant to examine the important issues confronting the Spanish-speaking world two hundred years after the first Latin American countries attained their independence from Spain. The conference was held at Florida International University in Miami during the first weekend of April.
So what subjects are creating a buzz in the Spanish-speaking world? Perhaps the best place to start is the location where almost unanimously Latin Americans are coming together: the city. In 1950 41.1% of Latin Americans lived in cities and today that number has grown to 75%. This rapid urbanization has had enormous impact on family life, labor conditions, and almost every aspect of social reality. Various conference participants explored this subject, giving particular attention to the links between the evolution of globalized economics and the terrible violence plaguing urban centers like Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. Always a part of Latin America, but too often marginalized and disenfranchised, the rise of indigenous leaders like Bolivia’s Juan Evo Morales Ayma has contributed to the increasing voice and political participation of this important portion of Latin America’s population.
The indigenous role in national and international dialogue was examined by various speakers, particularly with historical reanalysis challenging established ideas of the past and optimistic visions of traditional ways of life existing in today’s world. A subject which naturally accompanies discussion of indigenous issues is race and several participants gave papers exploring the realities of mixing European, African, Asian, and Indigenous heritages. While certainly revealing in their honest appraisal of the ever-present plague of racial discrimination, the speakers were also hopeful about the enormous richness such a cultural blend can offer both a society and its economy.
Often stereotyped as the land of machismo, people are sometimes surprised to learn of the number of important female political figures in Latin America including recent Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Conference speakers provided a profile of women in Latin America as torn between traditional roles and exploration of the new possibilities they have earned through education and the loosening of the formally male bastions of politics and business. A last mention should be given of the conference’s keynote speaker Dr. George Yudice who spoke about the effects of new technologies on the world of art and the elucidation of voices which hitherto had found difficulty breaking into political discussion. Dr. Yudice’s vision echoed that of many of the speakers in representing Latin America as an important participant in the world which, although plagued by many problems, has a positive future thanks to its diversity and ever-increasing modes of communication.
Issues like economic impact on cities, race relations, women’s rights, and the role of new technologies in national and international dialogue probably sound familiar to people in the United States. This is unsurprising because the image of the Spanish-speaking world and the US as separate entities is an idea from the past. The reality is that we are one and the same and the problems that we face are common. Two hundred years after Latin America began its independence from Spain, Florida International University’s conference made it clear that diversity provides us with the resources to confront our issues and communication is the key to making that possible.