Common ground and the English-only movement
by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Posted on December 8, 2008
Twenty years ago, enroute to the Arizona Capitol during the Oct. 22, 1988 march against the English Only Proposition, I was struck by the fallacies and inconsistencies persistent in the arguments of those pressing for its adoption. The English Only law was passed but later declared unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds And here we are in the year 2008 still beset by those same arguments for English Only laws by the likes of state Rep. Leo Berman (R-Tyler) who has “filed a series of bills for the 81st session of the Texas legislature aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants and the predominant language they, along with millions of Texans, speak” (NPT, Nov. 19, 2008). What are the proponents of English Only afraid of? Recently, a Floridian opined that “Spanish may be the native language of many Americans, but it is a language that includes only some, and alienates most.” This is a puzzling utterance because there are more speakers of Spanish in the Americas than there are speakers of English.
As a professor of English (now retired), I am not surprised by how little Americans really know about their language and its linguistic roots. Unfortunately, many Americans believe that the linguistic foundation of the United States is English. In the strictest sense of the word it’s not English that we speak in the United States but “American,” as H. L. Mencken correctly described it more than 75 years ago.
The American language is a melange of tongues brought to this country by its non-native citizens. When the country was first organized after the War of Independence, there existed a brew of languages spoken by the new Americans, not counting the myriad languages of the indigenous Native Americans. German was so popular at the time that it vied for contention as the language of choice. Domenico Maceri writes: "Indeed, German was so widely used in the eighteenth century that Benjamin Franklin complained about German-English bilingual street signs in Philadelphia” (hispanaicvista.com 2/16/05).
That notwithstanding, to institutionalize “English” as the official language of the country (or of any state) is to fossilize its growth, to fence it inside boundaries that would stifle its linguistic evolution. But fortunately, as much as one might seek that institutionalization, in the end that effort will prove futile. For languages are like consenting adults: they will “socialize”and produce linguistic issue with lexical dna drawn from borrowings, intrasentential alternations, cross coinages and blends of words that enrich vocabulary and meaning and life in all pluralistic societies. The American language is still a language under construction, as are all languages.
Be that as it may, only the most flawed kind of logic suggests that language is the glue of unity among a people. If that were so, then there should be no strife in Ireland or the Middle East. Nor in the former Soviet Union. Nor where internecine conflict rages between people who speak the same language. It is more than language that creates national character or national unity. More than anything it is “respect for individual differences” that strengthens national purpose. And speaking English does not assure us of equity in the American judicial or economic system. African Americans speak English but that has not assured them of equity in the American judicial and economic system. When the rights of individuals are subordinated to conformity, that way trouble lies. Conformity ne’er built democracy.
But I’m troubled by the minions of the English Only Movement who insist that rational debate on the merits of the English Only Movement are possible independent of the attitudes which brought it into being. That argument is much like one used by a defense attorney pleading leniency for his juvenile client (who murdered his parents) on grounds that being an orphan his client deserved consideration of the court on that score. Stanley Diamond, one of the early proponents of English Only, bruited about the ”real issues” of the English Only Movement, which is like saying that one can (or could) talk about the “real issues” of German economic reconstruction during the 1930's independent of the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the attitudes underlying the tenets of that reconstruction. Put another way, it’s like insisting on an assessment of Hitler as a good leader, independent of the holocaust. Try convincing American and international Jewry of that.
Indeed John Tanton, one of Diamond’s staunchest supporters, issued a memo supporting English Only that “tainted” the issue, just as Hitler’s anti-Semitism tainted the issues in Nazi Germany. That is why John Tanton and Stanley Diamond were the crux of the issue in the English Only Movement of the '80s.
The English Only Movement today cannot beg the question. Public scrutiny will reveal it for what it is--another Aryan manifestation in sheep’s clothing. Those of us who oppose the English Only Movement do not have to conjure up a series of perceived horrors as attorney Jim Henderson would have us believe. When he was Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin was right in pointing out that the trouble with the English Only Proposition was its mean-spirited design, as Senator DeConcini correctly insisted, and racist in intent as many of us had perceived from the beginning.
Salomon Baldenegro correctly pointed out that Arizona bill HCR 2030 pushed by State Representative Russell Pearce was steeped in hate letters. He pointed out that “Russell Pearce’s disdain for Spanish speakers went back to his teenage years when he made fun of a teen-age co-worker who couldn’t speak English" (Arizona Republic, 2/11/05).
One wonders if perhaps a comment by the Supreme Court Justices after ruling on the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896 might not have been: “This isn’t what it looks like. All we’re saying is that it’s alright to separate the races, provided we do it equitably.” Where was the “common sense” then that many English-Only proponents assured us would prevail in the future” As we all know, in the heat of the night common sense often loses its ground of being.
English-Only proponents are adept at ad-hominem arguments: when your own position is shaky, attack the character of the opponent. That tack is certainly not “debating the issues” of the English-only Proposition as its proponents say they devoutly wish.
Which brings us to an important consideration. There are really two issues embedded in the issue over State Representative Leo Berman’s Proposition to make English the official language of Texas: (1) an historical issue and (2) an ideological issue. Both have emotional roots and both are oftentimes severely misunderstood if not understood at all.
The ideological roots of Berman’s proposition spring from a lexocentrism (linguistic chauvinism) that has historically pitted English against Spanish, dating back to the days of the Spanish Armada and the attempted invasion of England. The Black Legend is one outcome of that ideological conflict. Manifest Destiny, another--fomenting the U.S. war against Mexico in 1846 and against Spain in 1898. The 19th century is manifest with these attitudes. In 1847, one George Wilkins Kendall explained “(The Mexicans) pertinaciously cling to the customs of their forefathers . . . . Give them but tortillas, frijoles, and chile colorado to supply their animal wants for the day, and seven-tenths of the Mexicans are satisfied; and so they will continue to be until the race becomes extinct or amalgamated with Anglo-Saxon stock” (Baldenegro).
Closer to our time, American ideology has dressed itself with the garments of Anglo values that took root early in America’s Atlantic seaboard. The primacy of the English language in the United States is of relatively recent origin. The settlements of early-day America were a polyglot assortment of people as Crevecoeur pointed out in his letters from an American Farmer, all eventually finding common ground in the English language, not because it was the language of unification but because it was the lingua franca between them, the koine of common parlance. There is nothing intrinsically superior about English that it should be our common language.
Consensus is what generated the primacy of the English language in the United States, not coercion. But, as I have already mentioned, the U.S. “English” language has been transformed into an American language whose vitality lies in the rich linguistic diversity of its people. All Americans, including Hispanics of the United States, understand the value and necessity of learning the “language of the country” in order to improve their lot and to carry out their civic functions, duties, and responsibilities.
Living in the United States, it’s important to learn English. I was a speaker of Spanish-only until I was 6 years old. Later as a young adult, when I lived and worked in France, I learned French because it was necessary to learn French in order to participate in the activities of the country. Later I became a high school teacher of French before starting my university career as a professor of English.
The ideological roots of the English Only Movement create difficulty in determining what exactly its proponents expect it to do or want it to do--apart from what appears to be some inevitable outcomes of its passage. The Anglocentric roots of U.S. English and of its worthy English First ally raise once more the ideological stranglehold that English language and culture has had on its speakers in the United States. Never mind that the country’s population is more than 85 percent non-English. Never mind that Spanish is not a foreign language in the Hispanic Southwest, spoken long before the arrival of English-speaking marauders and intruders frenzied with Manifest Destiny.
This phenomenon illustrates how a language captures people and develops a mentality–a mind-set engendered from a linguistic template. This is not a pejoration of the English language or a diminution of its significance in American life and culture. On the contrary--the phenomenon attests to the strength of language to mold character.
But in the United States that strength draws principally from the linguistic mix the language is subjected to in the Americanization process its citizens undergo. That mix is an annealing process, tempering the country’s language to fit the needs of its citizens in place and time as the 18th century philosopher Taine argued.
In the 18th century Samuel Johnson sought to codify the English language, that is, keep it from “deteriorating” as he perceived. He succeeded in creating the beginnings of English dictionaries but failed miserably in halting the “deterioration” of the English language as a consequence of his work. He failed because language is like a living organism whose evolution is inextricably linked to the evolution of humankind and of speech.
The historical issue which receives little attention but which is embedded in the English-only Movement has to do with the native peoples of the United States and their languages. Per the objectives of the English Only advocates the languages of American Indians would be imperiled. What would happen to the languages of Native Hawaiians? What would the status of Spanish be in Puerto Rico? What about the Spanish language of the Southwest? Place names of the region attest to an Hispanic presence prior to the arrival of Americans from elsewhere in the country.
A great number of Hispanics in the American Southwest have long roots in the area. One part of my mother’s family, for example, arrived in San Antonio Texas, in 1731. That predates the Declaration of Independence by some 45 years. A hundred years later members of that family fought for Texas Independence. Since 1848--when by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo more than half of Mexico was dismembered and annexed by the United States--members of my family have fought and died for the American flag and its causes. I served as a Marine during World War II, serving later in the Air Force during the Korean Conflict and into the Vietnam era.
Calling attention to Arizona, Baldenegro writes: “To the extent that our state is ’great,’ people of Mexican descent have contributed immensely to that greatness through their decency, heroism, honest work and strong work ethic. Quite simply, Arizona history cannot be told without discussion of the substantial and substantive contributions of Mexicanos and Chicanos. Indeed, some of the greatest aspects of Arizona’s history were made in Spanish.”
Hispanics are not newcomers to the American experience. They are part of that experience. Hispanic children learn about John Smith, the Mayflower, Ellis Island. But they do not learn that their forebears were not part of that experience. But that’s not the only history of Americans in the United States.
All American children ought to learn as Hispanic children of the Southwest and Puerto Rico know that the American experience has a different form in those areas. As it does in Hawaii. And as it does where Asian Americans and African Americans came into the country.
Even though I was an American, when I started school in San Antonio, Texas, in 1932 I was forced to attend a segregated school for “Mexicans” as we were generically identified then. The public schools of Texas did not end their segregation of “Mexicans” until 1969 when ordered to by a federal court (see “Montezuma’s Children,” The Center Magazine, November/December 1970). Ultimately I mastered the English language, and several others along the way.
The United States is not just a land of immigrants. The preponderance of African Americans are not immigrants to the United States. Puerto Ricans are not immigrants to the United States. Asians from Hawaii are not immigrants to the United States. By and large, Mexican Americans (especially of the conquest generation) are not immigrants to the United States. The United States came to them. To impose by force of fiat the conqueror’s language upon them is not the way to win friends and influence people--especially when a preponderance of Hispanics have already learned the language of the country, despite the erroneous impression that they don’t want to make or have not made the effort to learn English.
The agenda of the English Only advocates is dark and sinister, full of sound and fury auguring turmoil for the country. The begining of fascism takes many forms. In Nazi Germany it was the Jews. Are Hispanics to be scapegoats for American fascism?
It’s surprising how people are ready to give up their freedoms in the name of “unity,” how they are ready to replace one tyranny with another, as described in George Orwell’s superb fable, "Animal Farm." The lessons of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Cuba ought not to be lost on us. The Russification of the Soviet Union--establishing the primacy of the Russian language in all the jurisdictions of the Soviet Union–did not work. Not because the ethnic peoples of the Soviet Union with all their linguistic diversity opposed the Russian language, but because the proponents of Russian Only opposed all other languages in their domain.
The issues of language are not easy, any more than the issues of culture are not easy. What makes the issue of language particularly difficult is that language lies at the core of one’s existence, it is the primary vehicle by which one mediates the world about one. Therefore to attack the language one speaks is to attack the very heart of one’s identity. That’s why helping people bridge from one language to another is so important. Yet Rep. Leo Berman opposes funding for community-based English classes, believing, erroneously perhaps, in the “permeation theory” of second-language acquisition–that the sonic emanations of the English language permeate the bodies of second-language learners investing them thus with the meanings of English words. That‘s not the silver bullet of second-language learning, though many Anglo Teachers thought it was when I started to learn English.
People should not be made to feel that they must give up one linguistic identity to become members of another linguistic group. We have surely progressed to the point where we understand that the Americanization process ought to be an additive one. That, in this case, to become an American is to add the American language to one’s linguistic repertoire.
As Hamlet muses during the play within the play: This is miching malecho (mischief badly done). English Only propositions are acts full of mischief and mean-spiritedness. It is not an act by which we shall all come together but an act that will surely divide us as a people where no division need exist and where none should. English Only propositions will bestow to our heirs a legacy of discord. That is not what Arizona nor the country needs at the onset of the 21st century and the struggle against terrorism.
The United States is not what it was 200 years ago. It will not be in 200 years what it is now. It will be, we can hope, the bastion of democracy and the refuge of people seeking liberty as it was in the beginning and as it has been into our time. The United States belongs to its people: the Marshalls, the Blackmuns, the O’Connors, the Scalias, the Singhs, the Renquists, the Garcias, et al. It does not belong to the English, the Italians, the Irish, the Africans, the Hispanics. It belongs to all of us who are American citizens at this moment in time. Our American patrimony cannot be bought, nor can it be sold.
I daresay, should the English-only mentality become national dogma, American Hispanics will not wait three-score years for a Brown v. Board of Education decision to free them from linguistic shackles. They will not go gently into that good night. Nor should they. Hispanics have a history of fighting for American freedoms. And they will not shrink from another battle.
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Florida) delivered his maiden speech to the Senate in Spanish. While that distressed some folks, I regarded that as a genuine effort on the part of the Senator to remind his fellow Senators that the United States is not a monolithically linguistic enclave. The Senator’s speech in Spanish ought to be a wake-up call for lexocentric monolingual Americans that leadership in a polyglot world requires encouraging our children to learn as many languages as they can.
Because of the diversity of its population at its birth and because of the myriad languages of that population, the founding fathers were wise not to proclaim English as the official language of the newly-founded country. We should value that wisdom and not tie up Americans with linguistic straight jackets. An example of judicial straight-jackeing occurred recently in Lebanon, Tennessee, where a judge has been ordering “Mexican” women who are American citizens who have run afoul of the law to learn English, or else. If they make no effort to learn English they run the risk of losing their children. The court would terminate their parental rights.
The issue here is about assimilation, not second-language acquisition. Arbitrarily and capriciously, the judge ordered one “Mexican” woman to achieve a fourth grade level of English in six months. What is astonishing is that the citizens of Lebanon, Tennessee, were in full support of the judge’s rulings.
Copyright © 2008 by the Author. All rights re¬served.
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca is Scholar in Residence, Western New Mexico University, and Professor Emeritus of English, Texas State University System–Sul Ross
Most Viewed Stories
- Sex clubs and swingers in El Paso
- Biz Briefs 6.8-12.09: Small business summit; Department of Labor forum
- Bad Moon Rising: The Crisis in Ciudad Juarez
- ABC-7 reporter and photographer handcuffed, detained while covering I-10 wreck
- Houston Elementary School on the chopping block
- California judge crusades for marijuana legalization
- Playboy Magazine Features UTEP Coeds
- Resources for the El Paso gay community
- Review: IDEA Gallery, "Beyond the 2nd Dimension" Opening
- Pop Stars like JackO, Andy Warhol and Karen O make me proud to be an American