For the past ten days, I've been exploring the southwestern U.S., with visits to six more states to which I've never previously been. And as a language-lover, one thing has been clear right from the start: speaking Spanish has made this a much more pleasant experience for me.
In St. Louis, after I'd seen all the sights I wanted to see (and a few I didn't want to see!), I ended up at a coffee shop near the campus of the university, where I did some writing while waiting to meet up with one of my readers. It became clear to me that many of the people in that coffee shop were exchange students, including a few from Spain, with whom I spoke for a few minutes, before getting back to writing.
It seems that multiculturalism is becoming quite common on university campuses — probably as an unfortunate result of the American economy, as much as anything else — and I think that's a good sign for cultural integration in the future.
Unfortunately, the rest of St. Louis really didn't give me even the slightest hint of multiculturalism. And afterward, in Little Rock, I don't think I ever even saw a hispanic person anywhere.
Not far away, in Dallas, I was speaking Spanish with the people in the gift shops before I ever even left the airport. And indeed, all of Texas was like that. For the four days I spent between Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, Spanish was ubiquitous and I found plenty of opportunities to use it. Indeed it was everywhere. In fact, it was so ubiquitous that I just can't imagine how there are so many people in Texas who don't speak Spanish.
In New Mexico, I think I saw more people of hispanic descent than people who were not. It's clear to me why they call it New Mexico, probably because North Mexico would have been too obvious. It was hard to find even a non-hispanic person in New Mexico who didn't speak at least some Spanish. And I actually found that to be a charming trait.
In contrast, there seemed to be a much more clear social segregation in Oklahoma City, but even in spite of this, I was encouraged to see caucasian hotel managers speaking fluent Spanish with hispanic employees. But when I laughed at their joke, they acted surprised that I understood, which tells me that bilinguals are somewhat rare and unexpected there.
Now, upon landing in Kansas City, things already have a more familiar, almost midwestern feel again, with most of the Spanish-speaking people hidden from sight. It's kind of disappointing, and immediately I miss the multicultural openness I felt in Texas and New Mexico.
I remember a more openly diverse society in Las Vegas and Arizona, but I always felt a sense that hispanics were second-class citizens there. But that certainly wasn't the sense I got in Texas or New Mexico, and it was really encouraging to see the more positive face of what cultural integration can look like in the United States.
I only wish the rest of the country could begin to catch up.