This issue of “English Only” or legislation making it the “official” language burbles to the surface every so often, usually in an election year when immigration is on the table and the phony patriots want to frighten the foolish and the weak with tales of fierce brown-skinned people speaking a language they don’t understand.
After an emotional debate fraught with symbolism, the Senate yesterday voted to make English the “national language” of the United States, declaring that no one has a right to federal communications or services in a language other than English except for those already guaranteed by law.
The measure, approved 63 to 34, directs the government to “preserve and enhance” the role of English, without altering current laws that require some government documents and services be provided in other languages. Opponents, however, said it could negate executive orders, regulations, civil service guidances and other multilingual ordinances not officially sanctioned by acts of Congress.
It wouldn’t seem so ridiculous and patently political if most of the proponents of such a law had more than just a nodding acquaintance with English itself; if a cursory scan of the comments at places like Free Republic is any guide, most of the writers there would be in serious trouble from the Language Patrol.
Second, this is obviously an attack on Hispanics. There are parts of the country where languages such as French, German, Mandarin, Polish, or Navajo are co-equal with English and have been for centuries, and there are parts of this country where Spanish has been used longer than English. It wasn’t until the Republicans whooped up this latest tempestad over Mexican immigration that “English only” cropped up again. And in at least one state, the law would be a violation of the state constitution; when New Mexico was admitted to the union in 1912, one of the conditions was that Spanish would be acknowledged as an official language in the state. That made sense; there were Spanish settlers in the territory long before there were pilgrims on Plymouth Rock.
I also expect that such a law would go over like a globo de plomo here in Miami. Not only is Spanish the lingua franca on the streets and shops in most of Miami-Dade County, most of the movers and shakers here who are Spanish-speaking are Republicans. They’re proud of their heritage and they remember what it took to get here. Forcing them to give up part of their identity to score a political point would be greeted with the Cuban version of a Bronx cheer.
Many immigrants — Mexican or otherwise — also speak English, but whether or not they are bilingual isn’t the issue as much as it is an attempt to make them fit into some nebulous idealized image of an “American.” Harking back to the Ozzie-and-Harriet world of white picket fences and Chevy-driving Crest-using Republican-voting white-bread-eating version of America as some vision of America today is just plain whacked. If anything, that vision is a perversion of what this country was at the outset and what it was meant to be by the Founding Fathers, none of whom could prove their citizenship other than by the sacrifices of blood and fortune that they made to establish this nation.
As this country grows, built by people who can trace their roots to every other nation on the planet, the image of what this country is evolves and deepens. In a sense, the xenophobes who say that “America is no longer the America I knew” are right. And that’s a very good thing in any language.