Hispanicism is conquering the world

Article published on April 14, 2004
community published
Article published on April 14, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

From Miami to Bucharest and George Bush to Ricky Martin, Spanish is everywhere. Hispanicism is rising up against Anglo-Saxon culture. The language of Cervantes could be the decisive factor in Europe's future economy.

A few years ago, and even today, for many people the word "Hispanic" conjured up a group of Mexican chicanos singing popular songs around a table covered with glasses of Tequila. The image of the Andalucian gangster, with his unkempt hair and gun in hand, lying in wait in the mountains to attack rich convoys, was superimposed onto this.

Attack of the clichés

Hispanicism also sometimes evoked Cuban salsa, a bloodthirsty Colombian corporal in a white jacket and gold chains, or even little Andeans with chulus and Southern American flutes playing El condor pasa, a song whose origins might be found in Bolivia or Simon and Garfunkel, inspired by the artists of Central Park. Madonna's video for La Isla Bonita for example perfectly illustrated a blend of Hispanicism where Seville was confused with Guadalajara and Havana with Santiago in Chile. Madonna, dressed as an Andalucian gypsy, walks through some Caribbean streets packed with young, brown-haired people dancing and playing the guitar. "I want to be where the sun warms the sky. When it's time for siesta...". Who cares about nuance if everything can be blended and simplified?

The "Spanish" capital

But there is a place where all things Hispanic come together in a single and simplistic cliché; a proper multicultural melting pot; a theme park on the hottest banks of the American Empire. Miami: beaches; melodic songs; Spanish television channels; radio stations playing music in 'Spanish' on a loop; night clubs; television priests; concerts. In an era of globalisation, Hispanicism has prospered in the world of pop music thanks to its very clichés. Latino or Hispanic culture ("Latino", widely used and politically correct, is supposed to be replacing "Hispanic" with all its negative connotations) has emerged opposite the cold and industrious Anglo-Saxon culture. Hispanic culture is warm, sensual and emotional. Going beyond its regional musical idiosyncrasies, Hispanicism has wormed its way into the North American cultural industry, the most powerful in the world. This was no accident. Spanish is the mother tongue of 35 million people in the United States; George Bush and his family speak Spanish (and probably no worse than Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, especially when he visits Bush at his ranch and takes on a Texan accent).

Today, to analyse the global situation of Spanish you need to look more at Miami and the Latino Grammys (which are produced with the authority of Hispanic music) than the Instituto Cervantes. Sabado Gigante, a popular television programme produced in Miami, strings together over several hectic hours Hispanic music competitions, immigrant stories, reports and variety shows. A deluge of entertainment. The programme is watched by millions of viewers from the United States to Argentina. Miami defines Hispanic life and the two worlds survive through the sensual television waves.

When a cliché becomes a product

Relying on clichés by persistently presenting itself in a simplistic light without nuance, Hispanic culture has become well known through its music. This music has been commercially developed and is today the alternative to English-language pop culture. Everywhere in the world, including Europe, nightclubs play as much Hispanic music as Anglo-Saxon: Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Sanz. Spanish almost spontaneously realised that its success was due to mixing its music with other languages - songs in English with choruses in Spanish or Spanglish (a hybrid language spoken in many regions in the United States). Little by little, Spanish has gained ground. Hispanicism acquired a universal dimension in mass culture from the moment it became a product when a Hispanic market appeared. To become a cultural product is to be reduced, to be fused, to be made banal. It is to be distorted and promoted like washing powder in a global supermarket.

Spanish in Europe

Is Spanish Europe's second language? You might well ask. The evidence suggests that it is not second either in terms of numbers of speakers or in terms of popularity. In fact, Spanish lies in fourth place among languages Europeans prefer after English, French and German. This is because Spain is not the second economic power in Europe, even if progress in Eastern Europe is surprising - the number of pupils studying Spanish leapt by 158% in Romania and 86% in Poland between 1998 and 2002.

Through Hispanicism Spanish, together with Anglo-Saxon culture, occupies a commercial and cultural area in Europe. French, German and Italian benefit from strong roots on the continent but these are exclusively national. Spanish, on the other hand, has gone beyond the narrow politico-bureaucratic background of the European Union by allowing Europe to benefit from its privileged ties with South America and indirectly those of the United States. Spain is providing the Union with an alternative cultural product in the vast global market.

There's no doubt about it: Hispanicism entered the 21st century by benefiting from the strength of the market. When all is said and done, Spanish is on MTV, at the Grammy Awards and in the White House. Even if it is over-simplified, Hispanicism is the only significant mass culture apart from the Anglo-Saxon one.