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Commentary: Hispanics Semantics


The immigration debate has prompted a surge in the use of words we didn’t used to hear quite so much. Words like “caravan” or “asylum.” Words matter. Words are loaded with meaning—associations that could denigrate and fail to communicate.  In her commentary, Texas Public Radio contributor Yvette Benavides gives us a lesson in semantics. Benavides is a professor of English and creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.


Semantics is the study of meaning in language. Sense, reference, and logic are aspects of meaning.  When you consider semantics, you look at the shades of meaning of a certain word.  The denotation or dictionary definition of the word “bachelor,” for instance, is a single man, but the word is loaded with implications, connotations of a player, a guy who can’t settle down for being a “confirmed bachelor.”  In English, we don’t have a word for a single woman, “bachelorette” being reserved for a woman who is single but about to get married, someone with a “ring on it,” as it were.  And then the single woman who isn’t on a Vegas girls’ weekend is relegated to a fate as “spinster” or “old maid” but not a “confirmed bachelorette” who happens to be single. 

Considering semantics leads to more serious and even contentious questions around word choice.  Last month on Meet the Press, the NBC flagship public affairs Sunday show, Tom Brokaw, the veteran television anchor, in a panel discussion on immigration, said “that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation.” 

Full disclosure--I’m Hispanic. I’m an American of Mexican descent. Mexico is a Spanish-speaking country. I speak Spanish. I was born in the United States. I don’t need to work harder at assimilation.

Hispanic has always been a prickly term even given its ubiquity in the media, government documents, and in popular quotidian usage. Many don’t like the implications of the word—not all Spanish speakers from countries where Spanish is spoken are alike. It’s a census term, not really one that denotes anything at all about where a person is from. 

Does the label “Latina” or “Latino” or “Latinx” cover it then? Sure, if that’s the word a person chooses to use for him or herself. And are those people immigrants who need to assimilate? Hard to say. Maybe, maybe not.  And that’s where Brokaw’s problem lies.

He used a broad stroke that typifies those in the media, the government and elsewhere who generalize and, worse still, judge or stereotype.

He is conflating the term Hispanic with immigrant or Honduran or Guatemalan or Mexican, but also Mexican American. But by doing so, he is evoking the image of candidate Trump calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. That might seem like a leap, ostensibly, but consider Brokaw’s words. He said, "Hispanics need to assimilate." That clearly shows that he believes that Hispanics are immigrants—part of the caravans, part of the groups seeking asylum and promptly deported or jailed, or if they are children of a tender age, stripped from their parents and caged. Brokaw, because he was not careful with his words, asserted that Mexicans and others from Spanish speaking countries are undesirable in the United States unless they can somehow be more American. I’m Hispanic and I reached that end goal of American when I was born—right here in Texas, on land usurped from Mexico in 1848. 

Before this gaffe, Tom Brokaw said that when Americans talk about the subject of immigration they say things like “I don’t know whether I want brown grand-babies,” adding that, “intermarriage that’s going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other are a problem.”  Hasn’t been a problem for me. I’m not a bachelorette. And aren’t so very many of us a mix of cultures?

Brokaw went on the defensive, claiming himself a misunderstood victim in a burst of poorly written tweets that seemed to defy the strange logic of his prescriptive assertions that Hispanics “ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English.” Brokaw has long been a champion of the Greatest Generation of World War II he helped shine a light on in a series of books and documentaries in the early 2000s. All of the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been fought by those who gave all, including “Hispanics,” many of whom are highly decorated war heroes.

The plain truth is that Hispanics can be immigrants. Hispanics can be Americans. They can be both. Or not.  If Brokaw is really sorry for what he said, he didn’t say what he really means. Semantics. That’s the issue.

Brokaw’s stark carelessness might or might not speak to an attendant bias or prejudice, but how is it he can have such a lax attitude about his words, but not about the words—in English or Spanish—of others?

And he isn’t alone in this superiority, admonishing immigrants—in America.

When he and others in the media use terms like “caravans” and “walls” they are imposing again their own privileged moral imperative about perceived threats to the kind of America they want …their…not brown America.

"Caravan" started out as the denotation for a group traveling by camel or pack animal on the Silk Road. Traders travelling across Asia, Africa, and Europe. The word has taken on other shades of meaning--traveling by van, for instance, or traveling in a convoy, but the word still retains that shade of meaning of someone—a foreigner—entering a space where he is temporary, passing through—but still, a foreigner, mysterious, different, an outsider.

Caravan, then is a pretty loaded connotation for those seeking asylum for a variety of reasons from gang violence to domestic abuse to abject poverty.

President Trump has called immigrants from Mexico rapists, a wholesale indictment of people who are different from him, who speak Spanish, who are brown, and poor. Somehow, in this egregious and wild indictment, the apprehended tender age children are criminals.

Under President George W. Bush, Homeland Security set about to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Semantics. Today, the word is wall, sometimes it’s "the wall," or just "wall." Sometimes Trump calls it a "beautiful wall," because it holds back all those Hispanics.