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Elio Leturia Headshot

"Yo soy el alcalde de Chicago"

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Turns out that mayor Emanuel is going to take Spanish classes in order to address the Hispanics better. As my fellow citizens would say in this land: "Good for him!" Apparently, a very smart decision, and convenient, of course. Smart because the mayor could communicate better, and convenient because more people would support and sympathize with him.

According to statistics, out of the 2,850,000 Chicago residents, more than a quarter are Latino. But beware, the fact that the population is Hispanic, does not necessarily mean that speak Spanish. As a native Spanish speaker and professor of journalism in Chicago I can report that many Latino students I know were not precisely raised as active participants in their culture or language of origin.

More than once I have made the mistake of addressing in Spanish people who fit the stereotypical image of the Latino: dark eyes, skin and hair, whose name ends in "ez", for example. In return I have gotten some perplexed reactions and confused faces that look back at me in surprise and say, "Huh?"
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I don't assume anymore. Now I only speak English, and later I ask if my party speaks Spanish. Just as these students, many other people, especially Hispanics of second or third generation have chosen to embrace rightfully, the American identity. However, a large proportion of Latinos choose to identify with their origins and work to maintain their identity and language, making them part of their daily lives in this country. For them, Emanuel's bilingualism would be extremely useful.

I still wonder why the vast majority of Americans simply choose to be monolingual. One simple reason would be the belief that since the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet everybody must learn English. There wouldn't be then, a necessity to learn a second language. Other reason could be lack of time or plain laziness.

What folks do not seem to take into account is that if they were to take the opportunity to study another language, their minds would be exposed to other cultures, other social, economic and political points of view, and thus better understand the world we live in.
But studying a language other than our own is no easy task. Many whom I know say with pride: "I took four years of Spanish in school." But they never practiced it, so they only remember how to say "cerveza" or "baño".

The same goes for those who studied French, German or Latin. Many times I feel ashamed when I hear these comments. One must spend years studying and practicing a foreign language. It requires dedication and discipline. It takes work.

Mayor Emanuel starts with his personalized classes June 4, three times a week. His goal seems to be realistic: Speak basic Spanish. Although he claims that he learns quickly and has a base rooted in his previous study of Latin, I hope the mayor understands that with three classes a week he would learn only the real basics.

But I find his decision worthy of admiration, as long as he keeps in mind that if he wants to master the language he may need to be in front of City Hall for about 21 years, as Mayor Daley did ... but without losing a single session of his Spanish class. Buena suerte, mi amigo.