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Thursday 19 May 2022 at 4.00-6.00pm (BST)

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Hegemonies of language and their discontents: The Southwest North American region since 1540 


The Royal Anthropological Institute is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’, a discussion between author Professor Carlos Velez-Ibanez (Arizona State University) and reviewer Professor Anthony Grant (Edge Hill University), chaired by Dr Martin Edwardes (King’s College London).

Spanish and English have fought a centuries-long battle for dominance in the Southwest North American Region, commonly known as the U.S.-Mexico transborder region. Covering the time period of 1540 to the present, Hegemonies of Language and Their Discontents provides a deep and broad understanding of the contradictory methods of establishing language supremacy in the region and the manner in which those affected have responded and acted, often in dissatisfaction and at times with inventive adaptations.

Well-regarded author Carlos G. Velez-Ibanez details the linguistic and cultural processes used by penetrating imperial and national states. He argues that these impositions were not linear but hydra-headed, complex and contradictory, sometimes accommodating and at other times forcefully imposed. Such impositions created discontent resulting in physical and linguistic revolts, translanguage versions, and multi-layered capacities of use and misuse of imposed languages-even the invention of community-created trilingual dictionaries.

Velez-Ibanez gives particular attention to the region, including both sides of the border, explaining the consequences of the fragile splitting of the area through geopolitical border formation. He illustrates the many ways those discontents have manifested in linguistic, cultural, educational, political, and legal forms.

From revolt to revitalization, from silent objection to expressive defiance, people in the Southwest North American Region have developed arcs of discontent from the Spanish colonial period to the present. These narratives are supported by multiple sources, including original Spanish colonial documents and new and original ethnographic studies of performance rituals like the matachines of New Mexico. This unique work discusses the most recent neurobiological studies of bilingualism and their implications for cognitive development and language as it spans multiple disciplines. Finally, it provides the most important models for dual language development and their integration to the Funds of Knowledge concept as creative contemporary discontents with monolingual approaches. 




The review

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 26, issue 4, December 2020, pp.901-902.

Anthony Grant 

Carlos G. Vélez-Ibáñez, who was born in 1936, remains a prolific author (his website indicates that another book has been submitted since this was published), and this work, lavishly illustrated with photographs and reproductions of woodcuts – well chosen and no less striking for being in black and white – serves in part as a kind of intellectual family history. It should therefore be pointed out that the book’s focus is on the fate of Spanish-speakers in Southwest North America, as one would expect, given that the author is writing engaged prose as a bilingual Spanish/English Arizonan with ancestors and relatives over the border in Sonora, Mexico. The Indigenous linguistic history of the region is dealt with less deeply, even though this history still impinges upon the area: for instance, there is a trilingual community in Pascua, outside Tucson, speaking Yo’eme or ‘Yaqui’, English, and Spanish.

The general subject of Hegemonies of language and their discontents is, as befits the author’s research interests, a study of transborder relations in Northern Mexico and the US Southwest, specifically the parts under Spanish, and then Mexican, rule until 1848, and the roles which languages (Native American in addition to Spanish and English) have played in them. The prose style, especially in the earlier chapters, is dense and not always amenable to a brisk reading. Mistakes, however, are few, though the title of Xenophon’s Anabasis is sorely mangled.
The book’s approach is broadly chronological, starting with the typically aggressive contact between the Spanish and various Indigenous groups, many of which (Zuni, Hopi, Ute, and a number of Apache-, Keresan-, and Tanoan-speaking groups) still have a presence in the area with members speaking their customary languages. The point is made more than once that many modern-day ‘Mexican’ people in Arizona and New Mexico have at least some ancestry which can be traced back to local Indigenous groups, such as the Jumanos, whose languages and tribal identities were eventually absorbed into the Catholic Spanish-speaking world. There is an engaging account of the role of matachines (ceremonial dancers) as a feature of Indigenous life which became incorporated into the Hispanic culture of the area. One curious work which Vélez-Ibáñez highlights is a yet unpublished five-page vocabulary of Ute (a Numic language of northern Arizona), Spanish, and English, all of them written in Spanish orthography, and compiled by José Agapito Olivas in around 1860.

American English gained its hegemony over Spanish as the result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, a move abetted by the 1853 US Gadsden Purchase of land that is now part of New Mexico and Arizona. The use of Spanish came to be discouraged by the authorities. The author recounts how some of his relatives were ‘renamed’ with names more amenable to Anglo sensibilities; how children sometimes were beaten with riding crops for speaking Spanish in school; and how young Hispanophone children were coached in English during break-time by older children. The north of this region was where Goldwater Republicanism arose in the 1960s and the English Only movement reached fatuous heights of linguistic authoritarianism, as the author illustrates in chapter 6. Language was not the only concern of Anglo-American hegemons, as chapter 5’s account of their endorsement of eugenics reveals. The fact that this undervaluing of Spanish language and cultural experience does not have to be the way things are conducted is pointed out in comments which discuss how the state of Florida has taken an altogether more enlightened and liberal attitude to the promotion and support of Spanish in the state educational system. The author also makes it clear that among many Sonorenses living in Mexico, a tradition of bilingualism in Spanish and English has persisted for several generations, with commercial and other benefits. Seventy pages of appendices, notes, references, and an index complete the work.

Vélez-Ibáñez has interrogated the literature and practice on bilingualism in education in a number of European Union countries (and in Canada) and demonstrates (to the surprise of few) that more enlightened linguistic policies than those pursued in Arizona (and, as the author points out, the linguistic vista over the international border is not ideal) produce better educational results and linguistically more able students. Overall, Hegemonies of language and their discontents illustrates vigorously that the Spanish- and Indigenous-language-speakers of what he terms the SWNAR (Southwest North American Region) still have much to be discontented about with regard to the continued devaluation and disparagement of their languages and cultures. As an insider’s view of what linguistic hegemony amounts to, this is an important and timely work.




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