There was a time when Latino immigrants in the United States hushed up their Spanish, trying to blend in. Now you hear it all over, as Latinos flex their growing political and media muscle.

Indeed, the trilled R's and staccato bursts of the language of Quixote liven up city streets from coast to coast, and even in the halls of power in Washington.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine made history last week by giving a speech to the chamber entirely in Spanish.

He did so while defending an historic immigration bill that would create a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented aliens, mostly Latinos.

That gesture was rich in symbolism, said Pilar Marrero, author of a book on Latinos in the US and a journalist for La Opinion, a Spanish-language paper in Los Angeles.

"It is a way of establishing that it is OK to have more than one language spoken in this country and spoken in the corridors of power," Marrero told AFP.

Latinos are now the largest minority in the United States at 52 million people, 50 percent more than a decade ago, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center.

Except for Mexico, that is more Spanish-speakers than in any country of Latin America, and projections are that the figure will triple by 2050, when one of every three people in the US will be of Latino origin.

"In a matter of just four decades, we will decide everything from presidents to mayors, and we will have an enormous impact on the way this country eats, consumes, works, dances and speaks," Mexican journalist Jorge Ramos wrote in El Nuevo Herald.

Although there is much talk of Spanish-speakers these days because of the immigration bill, the trend is really anchored in the growing heft of the Latin electorate.

A record 12.5 million Hispanics voted in the November 2012 election in which Barack Obama won a second term. He took 71 percent of the Latino vote.

Two months later, a clergyman of Latino origin, the Reverend Luis Leon, spoke a few words in Spanish at Obama's swearing in -- a first at a US presidential inauguration.

"The catalyst is the Latino vote," said Marrero, and the American political class is simply adapting.

In Congress, many in the House of Representatives and the Senate either speak Spanish or have bilingual communications staffers, and some city halls, such as New York's, publish information in Spanish on their web site.

The federal government communicates with Latinos in Spanish, with advisory help from the North American Academy of the Spanish Language, said its director, Gerardo Pina-Rosales.

A native Spaniard who has lived in the US for 40 years, he has spent the last 20 studying how Spanish is spoken here. He said that even if they know English, Latinos are extremely attached to their native tongue.

Take a walk along the streets of any major American city and you will hear Spanish. And there is a boom in classes for US-born Latinos who want to improve their Spanish.

Several of the most frequently watched TV programs in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Chicago and New York are in Spanish. In April, Univision, which broadcasts in Spanish, became the fourth highest rated free-to-air TV channel, overtaking venerable NBC.

"Today it is cool to have an accent when you speak English," Ramos said after that TV landmark. "The time when you had to hide it is past."

Spanish is also the most commonly studied foreign language in US universities, according to the Modern Language Association.

But Pina-Rosales said he doubted the country would ever become bilingual.

And Marrero said that as Latino immigrants who started off speaking Spanish shift to English, they tend to stick with it, with Spanish remaining as a mother tongue and symbol of their cultural identity.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]