Hispanics are not politically united. What does an ultra-conservative Cuban-American businessman have in common with a Puerto Rican radical activist?
Yet on one subject there is overwhelming agreement among Hispanics of all political persuasion: language.
There is near-unanimous opposition to making English the official language and to laws that eliminate bilingual education. To many Hispanics, such language legislation is a gratuitous insult, a thinly veiled Hispanophobia.
Proponents of such laws are just as vehement. To them, the growing number of Spanish speakers threatens the linguistic unity of the United States.
No topic I cover in this column elicits more mail. Whenever I write about language I brace myself for a flood of letters, some of them blatantly racist, some from people who are misinformed. Invariably, those who propose Official English and oppose bilingual education are shooting at the wrong target.
They argue that Hispanics don’t want to learn English; that speaking Spanish is anti-American; that opposition to Official English laws equals opposition to English as the primary language of the United States; that unlike Hispanics, 19th-century European immigrants eagerly traded their native tongue for English; that schoolchildren should not ever be taught in their native language.
Those panicked by Spanish should read “Hold Your Tongue,” a new book by James Crawford (published by Addison-Wesley). Crawford exposes the underlying motives of the Official English crowd, reveals the hollowness of the argument that Spanish threatens the country and demolishes the myth that the immigrants of the past century easily melted into the famous pot.
Indeed, Crawford’s thorough research shows that immigrants of the past century were at least as linguistically assertive as Hispanics are today.
“During the 1850s Louisville, Kentucky, was one of several municipalities that translated city council minutes into German,” he writes. “Minnesota’s 1857 constitution appeared in five languages: English, German, Swedish, Norwegian and French.
“Missouri published French and German editions of its governor’s message, while Ohio and Pennsylvania did so in Welsh. Even Texas, never renowned for its spirit of ethnic tolerance, printed certain official documents in Spanish, German and Czech.”
The Republic survived. The children of those immigrants learned English, the same way that the children of Hispanics are learning English today.
Bilingual education, too, existed in the past century, contrary to the popular belief that it is a brand-new pedagogy designed to give preferential treatment to Hispanics.
Crawford writes: “Beginning with Ohio in 1839, a dozen states and territories passed laws explicitly authorizing bilingual education. … By the year 1900 … about 4 percent of American elementary school enrollment, public and parochial, received part or all of their education in the German language.”
Of course, the immigrants’ efforts to maintain their old language – even while learning English at the same time – brought on a strong reaction. Crawford says that during World War I people could be fined $25 for speaking German on the streets of Findlay, Ohio. While such coercion can be traced to anti-German feeling engendered by the war, what can explain the attitude of Wisconsin Gov. William S. Hoard, who in the campaign of 1890 said that German language instruction “will be a menace to the progress of civilization and the perpetuity of our institutions”?
English survived the German “onslaught” and remains our primary language. It will remain, and should remain, the primary language even in the midst of the Hispanic immigration boom. No major Hispanic figure I know proposes otherwise.
Unfortunately, this is not understood by proponents of Official English. Their paranoia makes Gov. Hoard sound positively modern. Crawford quotes ads placed in Miami newspapers during the successful 1980 campaign to make English the official language of Dade County: “STOP wasting our TAX DOLLARS to Promote
Bi-Lingualism: ONE LANGUAGE, ONE COMMUNITY.”
“Ein Reich,” they might have easily added. Well, maybe not. That would have been a foreign language. But the sentiment is not too far from their heart.
Roger E. Hernandez is a columnist with King Features Syndicate.