A Controversial 25 Seconds

The reactionary responses to use of Spanish language at a recent commencement ceremony demonstrate the limits of institutional diversity rhetoric, argue Christina M. Ceisel and Vanessa Díaz.

June 22, 2016

This academic year, a number of college campuses across the country became sites for vocal clashes between student groups, the administration and larger political movements. And just last month, our campus, California State University, Fullerton, made headlines following Univision anchor María Elena Salinas’s keynote speech at the Department of Communications’ graduation ceremony. As she addressed a graduating class of more than 800, she spoke of the role of identity in our society and the responsibility of journalists, and she made brief remarks to the crowd in Spanish. As she spoke, the crowd began to boo, at various times shouting, “Make America great again!” “English!” and “What about us?”

Almost immediately, backlash occurred on Twitter and Instagram, as users admonished the Univision anchor to speak in English. A graduate who had attended the ceremony wrote about it in the  OC Weekly, with The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times picking up the story soon after. While many of the headlines focused on Salinas’s mention of Donald Trump, many of the student comments referred to the address as too Latino-centric, saying Salinas focused on Latinos at the expense of other groups.

This expression of hostility toward the perceived “Latino threat” is not an isolated incident.

Donald Trump began his presidential bid describing Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, deportation has been one of his most consistent campaign promises, and he had Salinas’s co-host, Jorge Ramos, removed from a press conference last year. Trump’s rhetoric defies the conventions of political correctness and plurality.

In this case, Salinas’s speech and the resulting fallout are a synecdoche for what is at stake in the larger zeitgeist in this country. After years of championing diversity and inclusion, we now have to complete the move from relying on rhetoric to ensuring that diversity becomes a substantive practice.

Campuses are often a site of contestation, where students are negotiating the challenges of pluralism, belonging and diversity while preparing to engage in the broader society as both citizens and professionals. As faculty members, we firmly believe that the goal of a college education is to provide students with the opportunity to confront new ideas, engage with the complexity of contemporary social life and develop intellectual positions that result from careful consideration and study.

In furtherance of this goal, diversity has been championed on college campuses. This comes from the belief that campuses, in both faculty and student populations, should be representative of the people, experiences and ideas within the larger population. As the Census Bureau reports, by 2020 the more than half of the children in the United States will be part of a minority race or ethnic group. By 2060, only 36 percent of the population will be single-race, non-Hispanic white. Given the changing demography of the nation, it is encouraging that colleges and universities are taking steps to reduce the disparities in higher education achievement and aiming to have faculty and student populations that reflect our contemporary society.

As faculty members in the Department of Communications at CSUF, we are proud that our department takes an interest in serving a diverse student body that is reflective of our Southern California location. Our university has been designated a Hispanic-serving institution, ranked No. 1 in California and fifth nationally in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics. Our department is ranked first nationally in awarding communications degrees to Latinos. To broaden the professional opportunities for our students in journalism, advertising, public relations and entertainment and tourism, we recently launched the Latino Communication Initiative as a way to provide guidance and experience for students interested in the growing Latino communications industry. As part of that initiative, we have begun a Spanish-language news program, Al Día.

A Small Effort at Inclusion

It is in this context that Salinas’s speech, and the negative reaction by some to her remarks, occurred. According to the video of Salinas’s remarks, she spoke in Spanish for exactly 25 seconds, saying she was very proud of the students and their achievements and that she encouraged them to continue working and writing for their community. Switching to English, she then remarked that it is wonderful to be bilingual, because it allows to one to move between cultures. In an era where study abroad initiatives and diversity are encouraged for exactly this purpose, these comments should hardly be controversial or exclusionary.

As the events at our department’s commencement began to attract national attention, we received a number of emails from students, which led to long phone calls during which students expressed their varying perspectives on the incident. Many students saw nothing wrong with Salinas’s remarks. For example, Alana Garrett, a 25-year-old African-American graduate who does not speak Spanish, said, “It didn’t bother me. It wasn’t like she just spoke in Spanish the whole time. She said a couple of sentences. That’s what she should do -- she works for Univision. Why would that upset people?”

Similarly, graduate and Al Día reporter Alfredo Sanchez, 21, whose family is from El Salvador and for whom Spanish is his first language, said, “There should not be shame in speaking one’s language. She was just talking about Hispanic students making a difference and being able to reach the stage of commencement.”

Other students expressed an understanding why some non-Spanish-speaking students would feel excluded by Salinas’s Spanish remarks. David Leos, a 42-year-old graduate born to two Mexican immigrants, said, “The two students I was sitting next to were an Arab Muslim and a white Christian, and I can tell you they both felt excluded. I appreciated Salinas’s spotlighting of Hispanics’ successes and adding Spanish dialogue, but I also felt sorry for other non-Hispanic students.”

Indeed, in articles published in the aftermath of the event, some people expressed a belief that the delivery of these remarks in Spanish was exclusionary. However, this perspective disregards the fact that many of the parents, grandparents and extended family in the audience speak Spanish more fluently than English, or do not speak English at all, and were therefore excluded from the entire remainder of the ceremony. Delivering less than 30 seconds of her remarks in Spanish was a way for Salinas to include such individuals. Arely Martin, 23, had family members in attendance who did not speak English. “She actually told me, ‘Finally we go somewhere where we understand. There is actually someone talking to us,’” Martin said of her mother, who was born in Mexico.

The question we must ask is why this small effort at inclusion resulted in such hostility from a segment of the audience.

Much of the news media coverage has emphasized that Salinas’s remarks in Spanish were met with heckling and a distinct call for “English!” That is audible on the video of the speech. The focus on the language spoken by Salinas takes for granted the very real ways in which language and race are correlated.

Specifically, complaints about the speaking of Spanish are a way in which “color-blind” racism against Latinos can rear its ugly head. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains in his seminal work Racism Without Racists (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), because it is acknowledged that racism is “bad,” people use proxies for race to express beliefs that, if stated directly, would be considered racist. Arguments favoring “English only” in public spaces have a very long, very racialized history in this region. Well into the 20th century, the Southwest was sprinkled with signs that proudly boasted, “We Serve Whites Only. No Spanish or Mexicans.” Bilingual education has been banned in California public schools since 1996 under Proposition 227, the repeal of which will be on the ballot in this November’s election. Such a long history of contestation over the use of Spanish in the United States maps onto the history of the legitimacy of Latinos’ presence in this country.

While diversity and inclusion are contentious civic terrain, for anyone hoping to enter the workforce, linguistic, ethnic and racial diversity are de facto values. The Harvard Business Review has reported on how workplace diversity increases innovation and how diversity-centric strategic goals led to IBM’s turnaround success story. A study published in PNAS found that diverse teams outperformed high-ability teams on problem-solving tasks -- suggesting that diversity of thought is more important than simply high aptitude. Most crucial for our graduates, industry journals such as Advertising Age have published articles on the need for the media industries to diversify, arguing, “This will give us the insights and the skills to evolve alongside the massive demographic, technological and social shifts that we’ll see in the coming decades.”

When Salinas spoke last month, the fact that some students and families felt excluded at times is indicative of the previously limited experiences they have had in engaging with difference. Other students and families appreciated that the remarks reflected their own experiences. These reactions are reflective of the larger political terrain, where Trumpism pits an essentialist national identity against our contemporary realities. But the fact remains that exposure and engagement with difference is necessary in order to navigate our multilingual, multiethnic, multiracial society.

What remains to be seen is if these exhortations of the value and importance of diversity will retreat to the dustbin of rhetorical canards or if we can build a sustainably diverse public life -- one that is too deeply engaged with the benefits of multiplicity and diversity to crumble under an attack on political correctness. CSUF graduate Arely Martin took hope from Salinas’s address that her generation can do the work to build a diverse society. “She said, ‘You are the generation that’s going to build bridges, not walls.’ I thought, that’s so true. How could anyone be offended by that?”


Christina M. Ceisel and Vanessa Díaz are assistant professors of communications at California State University, Fullerton. The opinions expressed in this article are their own.

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