Hispanic residents in the New York metropolitan region have mounted aggressive campaigns to kill legislative proposals to declare English the official language in the three states.

The campaign has met its goal in Connecticut, a state where polls show that most residents favor making English the official language, but where lobbying by Hispanic groups was one reason such a bill failed to be approved in committee.

In New York, however, legislation is still pending. And in New Jersey, where the number of Hispanic people who vote and who hold office has been growing since the late 1970’s, many local and state officials call a similar bill ”extremely controversial,” according to Senator Richard A. Zimmer, Republican of Flemington.

The legislation pending in New Jersey says only that English should be the state’s official language. ”Spanish has just grown too prominent in New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Peter J. Genova, a Republican from Union County who is a sponsor of the bill. ”We’ve got to encourage people to respect English as the language of this country. In situations when they can use English or Spanish, we’d like them to use English.”

Hispanic Residents’ Fear

Many Hispanic people express doubt, however, that encouraging wider use of English in largely Hispanic areas is a primary reasons for these bills.

”The driving force here is not a desire to help natively Spanish-speaking people become fluent in English,” said Israel Romero, president of the Cuban Cultural-Civic Center, ”but a desire to suppress our language and culture.”

”Fluency in English is necessary to advance socially, economically and politically here, and Hispanics acknowledge that,” said Adolfina W. Denend, a writer who has taught bilingual education. ”But why, if they really want to encourage fluency, don’t they focus their energy on developing programs that teach English to native Spanish-speakers?”

Emotions on both sides have built steadily in the New York area after a similar proposal in California was enacted with surprising ease in a referendum last November.

Hispanic Presence in Region

California and Texas are the only states with more Hispanic residents than New York, according to 1980 Census figures, the most current available. New York had 1.7 million Hispanic residents, with all but 200,000 of them in New York City; New Jersey had 500,000, with 145,000 in Hudson County, and Connecticut had 125,000, with 45,000 in Fairfield County.

Hispanic residents in the region say the California vote taught them to be aggressive.

At the same time, supporters of U.S. English, the oldest group lobbying for adoption of English as the official language, and other groups are introducing bills and pursuing members across the country. Thirty-three states are considering such proposals; 13 have adopted them. And for the first time, said Steven Workings, director of government affairs for U.S. English, five separate English-language bills are under consideration in Congress.

In the New York area, U.S. English membership has grown to 15,000 in New York from 2,000 in December 1984; to 7,000 from 900 in New Jersey, and to 3,800 from 580 in Connecticut.

Overreaction Is Charged

Yet U.S. English officials say it is in these states where they have encountered the most formidable opposition – a solid Hispanic resistance.

Supporters of English-language laws say opponents are overreacting and voicing unwarranted charges.

”They start charging that we’re going to take away things like 911 operators and court interpreters,” Mr. Workings said. ”We’re not. We couldn’t do it if we wanted to; the law won’t allow it. All those things will remain, and you’ll always be able to order from a French menu.”

The sponsors of the New Jersey bill, Assemblyman Walter M. D. Kern Jr., a Republican from Ridgewood, and Mr. Genova acknowledge that it is targeted mainly at Hispanic people. Mr. Kern said: ”What made this country great was that there was a common tongue. But there seems to be a push among several communities to try to divide everything into two separate languages.”

The Spanish-speaking population in New Jersey is situated largely in Hudson, Union and Bergen Counties, in the northeastern part of the state. Hudson County, where the campaign has gained the most momentum, has for decades been something of a small Ellis Island. In the 1920’s the Germans settled there, followed by Irish, Italian and then Hispanic people. #90-Block Strip Today Bergenline Avenue, a bustling 90-block strip that runs through Union City and West New York, dotted on either side by mom-and-pop bodegas and haberdasheries owned mostly by Hispanic people, provides a striking example of how daily commerce in the United States can come to thrive almost completely on a language other than English.

With the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Cubans in the early 1960’s, Spanish quickly became the prevalent language on the streets. Its importance grew so rapidly that about a decade later it became institutionalized. From the sidewalks and corridors Spanish moved onto ballots, billboards and even McDonald’s menus.

Several non-Spanish-speaking residents have expressed resentment. When non-Hispanic students at Emerson High School discovered their report cards were printed in two languages, for instance, many scratched out the Spanish and returned them in protest.

Such incidents, however, have been sporadic – until recently.

Now, many on both sides point to the irony that the goal of U.S. English and similar groups to bring language minorities into the mainstream is breeding deep divisions, provoking bitter, accusatory exchanges and feelings of resentment.

”To make English the official language is redundant. We know, and respect, that it is the language of the United States,” said Alfonso A. Acosta, a Cuban-born poet who teaches advanced Spanish and mathematics at Emerson High School in Union City, the area, after Miami, with the largest concentration of Cuban exiles after Miami.

Comments are closed.