By Jose Baig
Jose Baig is one-half of the BBC Mundo team —¿Hablas español? — which recently finished a unique experiment exploring the presence of Hispanics and the use of Spanish in the United States.
While on the road, Jose Baig checks email and updates the blog site for the project “Â¿Hablas español?
On two separate cross-country trips Jose and his colleague, Carlos Ceresole, interacted with people from all walks of life using only Spanish to communicate. Their findings about the prevalence of the Spanish language, the attitudes of non-Latinos towards Hispanics and the Spanish language and who exactly are U.S. Hispanics created an unforgettable trip for the two correspondents.
In the following post, Jose shares with Latina Lista his impressions of the project and what insights he learned about the issues that really matter to people across the country.
It was a year ago, in the Miami bureau of BBC Mundo – the Spanish language service of the BBC World Service that this idea came about. We were trying to find new and creative ways to reflect the presence of the Hispanic/Latino community in this country.
I had just been appointed as the US Hispanic Affairs Correspondent, when I asked my colleagues, “Would it be possible to cross the US from coast to coast speaking only Spanish?” Some thought so. Others didn’t. “There’s only one way to find out,” I said. And that’s how the ¿Hablas español? initiative was born.
With the contributions of the interactivity and video teams we created a fully interactive multimedia project. The idea was to have our audience as involved as possible. We asked them for comments, but also for suggestions on where to stop and what to do. We also joined a few social networks on the internet, to reach out to as many people as we could.
The first phase of “Â¿Hablas espaÃ±ol?”, last summer, took us from Saint Augustine, in Northern Florida, to Los Angeles, in California. When we announced it on our web page, hundreds of e-mails poured in. Half of them complaining that the route we chose was way too easy. The other half pointed out the fact that we were missing some cities with large Spanish-speaking populations.
After two weeks on the road, we realized that in most cases people will make an effort to communicate although being approached in a different language. We also found out for ourselves that Hispanic doesn’t mean Spanish-speaker. And finally, that Spanish should no longer be considered a foreign language in the USA.
But that was just the beginning. As many of our readers, we also wanted to check how it would be to try the same throughout the Northern states. So as soon as we landed back in Miami, we began to plan the second phase of “Â¿Hablas espaÃ±ol?”
We decided to go all the way from Seattle, Washington, to Washington DC. Apart from being a route that crosses 18 states with a total population of more than 130 million people, it also made an excellent tagline for the initiative: “Â¿Hablas espaÃ±ol?” “From Washington to Washington”.
“That route is going to be even easier than last year’s”, told us a radio host in Rupert, Idaho, when we called him to ask him to be one of our interviewees along the way.
He was referring to the increasing phenomenon of the internal migration from Southern to Northern states. New laws against undocumented migrants as well as the effects of the economic crisis explain, in part, this movement. As a result, Hispanic presence is growing quite rapidly in states like Washington and Nebraska.
Being an election year, we decided we should also try to reflect the concerns and the expectations of the Latino community towards the upcoming election and the next government.
While on the road, we were able to find Spanish-speakers in every single one of our stops. Even in Snowville, Utah, a town with only 177 people where, according to the local joke, the mayor, the milkman and the ambulance driver are the same person, we found five Spanish-speakers.
But what we find really surprising this time is the vast number of USA-born people that are learning Spanish. Among them, many studied it at school, some others have lived in Spanish-speaking countries and a few are impressively competent in their command of the language.
On the political side, most people seem to be worried mainly for the immigration issue. But they’ve also asked the next president for a better environment, an improvement of the healthcare system, more support for education and the end of the war in Iraq.
For my colleague, Carlos, and me it is amazing how that humble idea born in our newsroom a year ago became “Â¿Hablas espaÃ±ol?”, a multimedia project linked to the social networks on the internet where we intend to drive 4,000 miles across the USA from coast to coast speaking only Spanish and asking people what they expect from the next president of the USA.
“It was the trip of a lifetime”, a reporter told us in Washington, DC. “And we did it twice”, was our answer.