Suitcases leave before one, Rafael Alberti said every time he loaded his luggage at an airport. He always feared that he would get lost in any corner of the world and so he left it written in a poem. The need to travel is as human as the desire not to run out of clothes. Running the Instituto Cervantes means traveling the world with a baggage of words, putting many suitcases in motion. They are round trips, they take Spanish culture to many lands and they bring the cultures of those lands to Spain.
Declarations of love for the mother tongue and the need to learn other languages naturally coexist in our daily existence. Although studies of second and third languages occupy more and more space, few voices dare to doubt, if not in the processes of identity fanaticism, the respect that the native speakers of a language in which they learned to say “mother” deserve. , I’m cold”.
Reducing culture and identity to a single language is still a trap. Spanish, for example, proceeds like other languages of Latin culture, is situated in a broad Ibero-American framework and is defined in an extensive geography in which the nuances and traces of multiple traditions are not lacking. But to ignore the weight of languages in identity feelings is also to fall into a serious trap.
We must be very careful not to take sharp positions in debates on issues such as memory, languages and the rights of minorities or majorities, issues on which the democratic sense of belonging depends in the current internationalization of the world. Globalization has set in motion a double dynamic of homologations under dominant cultures and strong identity reactions. Let’s be careful. Abstract universalization is useless when it helps us to get rid of an old woman, a neighbor of the fifth, who dies alone and whose name we do not know. Nor is a search for community that asserts itself in supremacist contempt for other ways of being and speaking is not acceptable.
Is it possible to work for an open identity, a sense of democratic belonging that harmonizes individual realities with respect for human rights? I discover nothing if I affirm that, on the international scene, with all its shortcomings and limitations, the European Union is the most attractive point of reference.
In a famous episode of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes had his famous knight talk to the father of a poet. When the issue of the dignity of languages and their literary use arose, Don Quixote showed once again that his follies knew how to coexist with good sense and good reasons: “The great Homer did not write in Latin because he was Greek, nor Virgil He did not write in Greek because he was Latin. In resolution, all the ancient poets wrote in the language that they suckled in the milk, and did not go to look for the foreigners to declare the highness of their concepts. And this being so, the reason would be that this custom should be understood by all nations, and that the German poet should not be dismissed because he writes in his language, nor in Castilian, not even in Biscayan, who writes in his.
That some languages only serve to speak in privacy is not very Cervantes. We can even say that the public meaning of languages, their political and social value, is greatly reduced if we separate it from the words that were sucked with milk. With a lingua franca, devoid of poetic nuances, you can do business and strategies of lobby, but it is impossible today to create a democratic sense of belonging. And that does not mean to despise the knowledge of other languages. Don Quixote immediately took it upon himself to praise the knowledge of Latin, Greek and other languages. Our humanists had already understood that the impediment of reading the Bible in Spanish was very falsifying for religion. We democrats should learn that respect for the mother tongue is inseparable from a coexistence based on the democratic sense and on the consideration of human rights.
How do you build a community? When the United States seized half of the Mexican territory with the Guadalupe-Hidalgo treaty, it took little time to decide that English should be imposed as the only language. It was the language of the founding fathers. In California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, the ceremony of burying Spanish-language books in the schoolyard was extended. That was the lesson in supremacism that President Trump later embodied when he erased the Spanish-language website of the White House and supported the policy of English Only. A 21-year-old boy took it too seriously and shot Spanish speakers in El Paso in August 2019, causing 22 deaths and 24 injuries.
The European Union, on the contrary, has wanted to turn linguistic diversity into a sign of open identity, ready to seek a community that is not based on supremacism, but on multiculturalism. In the calendar of aspirations and memory, the calendar that officially unites reason and feeling, the Council of Europe designated September 26 as the European Day of Languages. It is important to know languages with which to travel and do business, but it is very important to value the human roots with which we learned to ask for help and to feel as a family. César Vallejo wrote it in The wheel of the hungry: “But give me / please, a piece of bread to sit on, / but give me / in Spanish / something, in short, to drink, to eat, to live, to rest …”.
Europe has 24 official languages and 60 regional languages. If we add the languages of the migrant population and some minority forms, the number reaches 200. It is not to be scared, because in the world today there are more than 7,000 languages, many of them in danger of disappearance. The need to preserve memory and make it compatible with increasingly just progress is the best way to facilitate a sense of democratic belonging. Closed identities or stark and totalitarian abstractions are of no use.
Spanish is a language very indicated by history and present to understand the importance of linguistic coexistence. He was born in La Rioja, in an area of Basque speakers, as an evolution of Latin that allowed understanding with other border communities. From its origins it has been a vehicular language. He first fulfilled this task in the Iberian Peninsula, in which he received many Arabic words, and later he went to America, coming into contact with numerous indigenous words. The unity of a language of 500 million speakers is only possible if diversity is respected.
Celebrating the language is celebrating our will to understand. It is very good to be equal before the law, but without forgetting our own reality. Achieving an egalitarian coexistence between diverse beings is more interesting than betting on supremacism or the sublimation of differences.
Luis Garcia Montero he is director of the Instituto Cervantes.