The old saying goes that a good way to pick a fight is to bring up religion or politics. Let’s not forget language, a real hot button these days.
Offer some Americans the option of making ATM transactions in Spanish, or tell them about a bilingual this or that, and they get so angry they are almost speechless.
The rap is that immigrants of today (read: “Mexicans”) don’t respect the United States enough to learn “our language” (read: English) – that they expect Americans to cater to them and translate everything into Spanish, thus violating the bargain in which previous waves of immigrants agreed to forsake their mother tongues as a loyalty oath to America.
First, the part about the immigrants of old cheerfully giving up their language is romantic fantasy – something that people tell themselves to reconcile the contradiction of getting misty-eyed at the thought of immigrant grandparents crossing the Atlantic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries while waving a fist at Mexicans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border today.
The truth is that other immigrant groups that arrived in the United States in the earlier era speaking a non-English language – most notably from Germany – tried mightily to defend their native tongues against hysterical assaults by governments and goons.
In Wisconsin in the late 1800s, politicians banned one of the first stabs at bilingual education – the use of German to teach subjects in public schools. And in Pennsylvania, during the heightened patriotism of World War I, nearly every German-language newspaper in sight was confiscated and destroyed at one point.
Many German immigrants resisted, stressing to children the importance of preserving their Germanness. But they were outnumbered and overwhelmed.
Today’s Latino immigrants are faring better in their resistance. A big reason is the linguistic cocoon built by powerful corporate entities thirsty for a share of a Latino consumer base that will, by 2010, spend an estimated $ 1 trillion a year. In whatever language, nothing speaks louder than the ringing of cash registers.
And what speaks to politicians is the prospect of winning votes.
In Iowa, where the Latino population grew 153 percent in the 1990s, legislators this week felt the urgency to pass a bill declaring English the state’s official language. The measure, which was approved by the state Senate last year, requires that all state and local government documents be printed in English.
It now goes to Gov. Tom Vilsack, who has said he just might sign it. Given that it was Mr. Vilsack who tried last year to recruit more Mexican immigrants into the Iowa workforce, we now can assume one reason for the recruitment effort wasn’t to enhance the state’s cultural diversity.
English-only laws are pointless and insulting. Governments shouldn’t exact loyalty oaths. And the last group of people on earth that should need a lecture on that score are residents of Iowa, a state founded in part by German immigrants.
Things are different here in Texas, where the state GOP has volunteered to pay for Spanish lessons for any Republican candidate who wants to bone up on his espaol. No wonder. In a state where Latinos make up 32 percent of the population, you might be able to get by without speaking Spanish – but you might not be elected governor.
The last Texas governor, who now resides in the Casa Blanca, spoke Spanish. The current one, Rick Perry, a Republican, says he is taking Spanish lessons.
And this evening, two Texas Democrats running for governor will – in what is being touted as a national first – actually debate in Spanish. Laredo millionaire Tony Sanchez and former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales will butt heads in Dallas. The candidates will debate for an hour in English, then another hour in Spanish.
That has tongues wagging in a state where kids in elementary schools once had their mouths washed out for not speaking English. Now, those who are most afraid of punishment are politicians who don’t speak Spanish.
Supposedly, the motivation behind the Spanish-language debate is that the gubernatorial candidates want to show respeto for Latino voters.
But real respect on the language front requires – from political parties and corporations alike – something more substantial than a bilingual pitch. It requires a fresh commitment to the idea that, while knowing as many languages as possible is an undeniable asset, immigrants also have a responsibility to break free of their cocoon and learn English – something that they ultimately will find to be of more value than most products or politicians.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.