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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Spanish

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State Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington recently made national headlines when he lambasted a witness during the legislative special session for testifying in Spanish (with an English-language interpreter) at a committee hearing on SB 9, the so-called sanctuary cities bill. “It’s insulting to us!” he shouted to the surprise of some colleagues, who hadn’t been consulted on the affront. “It’s very insulting.”

That’s an interesting choice of word: insulting. How can a language be insulting? A word, sure. A word can be insulting. A sentence, too. But a language? I’m really insulted by Japanese. No, that’s just not rational. 

Obviously, what Harris was really feeling was fear. Fear of becoming extinct. As if Spanish is some new language that’s come to wipe English-speaking Texas off the map. As if Spanish-speaking people did not help create the very Texas culture that Sen. Harris holds dear.

Harris isn’t the only lawmaker who mistakenly believes that Spanish is a threat to Texas. At the opening of the 82nd Legislature, Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler told Austin’s YNN news that the most important and cost-effective bill he filed this session was HB 301, which would have established English as the state’s official language. By ceasing to print official state documents in other languages, Berman reasoned, the state would save a bundle. With economic visionaries like Berman, no wonder this session opened with a $27 billion deficit.

Let us not forget that during the last session, Berman authored HB 253, along with Rep. Debbie “Terror Babies” Riddle of Tomball. That bill would have prohibited second-language proficiency requirements, meaning the state could not require applicants to know another language in order to get a job or a promotion. Berman and Riddle wanted to officially sanction ignorance among state employees. Which, had the bill passed, would have dovetailed nicely with the $4 billion they cut from education this session.

It’s easy to make jokes about the questionable intelligence of bureaucrats, but the truth is, it’s ordinary Texans who stand to lose IQ points if the lawmakers have their way. Banning state documents from being translated to other languages boils down to censorship. Don’t be fooled by words like “preservation of culture.” What English-only legislation aims to preserve is power in the hands of a select group of people.

How is a person who does not speak English, or perhaps does not read it, to defend himself in court when the charges brought against him are, by law, not printed in his native tongue? In many pockets of the country, like the Rio Grande Valley, generations of people were born and raised in the United States but never learned English. They don’t need to. Is that insolent? Maybe. But is it any more insolent than the millions of Americans who refuse to learn any language but English and then defend their ignorance as a matter of patriotism?

Recently I had breakfast with my 88-year-old grandmother, who was born and raised in Donna, Texas, when the official policy was to punish kids for speaking Spanish at school. “But that was what they had to do to make sure we learned English,” she reminded me. “We had the tradition of speaking Spanish in the home even though my parents were born in Texas, so how else were we going to practice?”

Now my Spanish is terrible because my generation was the first to be encouraged to speak English in the home. My native tongue became a legacy of shame passed down from my grandparents to my parents. But not to me. My generation now knows that children are capable of learning multiple languages at once, far more easily than adults. If we want our children to succeed in this increasingly globalized world, the more languages they know, the better shot they’ve got.

Yes, Sen. Harris, perhaps it is insulting to realize the world isn’t as small as you would wish.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.