“Remember the cottonwood!” cried the patriots of the new nation of Friendly as they battled General St.Anne, little knowing that 150 years later their descendants would be eating fried corn flower meat pies and mushy green stuff on corn chips as they toasted each other with salty drinks called “daisies” and beer in red cans. An English-Only History of the Second Largest State i T IS DIFFICULT to know whether a constitutional amendment making English the official language of Texas would mean anything more serious than having the bluebonnet declared state flower, or whether an “English First” law would result in history lessons such as the above. But the State Republican Executive Committee is determined to give it a try. The leadership of the Good 01′ Party has voted to back constitutional amendments making English the official language both of Texas oops Friendly and the United States of oh dear, what do we do about Amerigo Vespucci? The GOP was doubtless emboldened by the example of California, whose voters like, I mean, you know, oh wow, passed this really bitchin’ proposition making English the official language of the Disney Kingdom. Like, they said, okay. So now it’s okay. Okay? \(Well, maybe not. “Okay” is a word some scholars believe is derived from a West The California initiative gives any citizen worried that the state government is slighting English the right to sue the state. Opponents of the proposition said the law might prohibit public services such as medical interpreters and nonEnglish speaking emergency telephone operators and open the door to a flood tide of strange lawsuits. Until the Friendly legislature works out the language of such an amendment, it is difficult to know its implications. In Dade County, Florida, an official English law had to be revised because it wound up prohibiting translators in Mary Lenz, lives and writes in Austin. the courtroom, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. Strict enforcement could mean not only that a huge number of cities, towns, and counties would have to change their names. It could also be hell trying to order dinner in most sit-down restaurants. And it could lead to geographical confusion, as both Austin and Gainesville would find themselves in close proximity to Red Rivers \(one formerly At the very least, it could offend a number of bilingual citizens who may have been under the illusion that the GOP had actually wanted to open its doors to them by running Roy Barrera for attorney general. The state committee was careful not to announce its support of English First until after the election. The Dallas Morning News, among other papers, was highly critical of the move, saying Texas Republicans should “build bridges to Mexican American voters, not burn them.” “It isn’t as innocent as it sounds,” said Willie Velasquez, director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. “It would probably pass here in Texas, and it would pass big, and it would serve the purpose of getting citizens at each other’s throats.” Velasquez noted that in Belgium, whose population is divided between speakers of French and Flemish, a move to impose a single language recently resulted in riots. “When you try to cram language down people’s throats, you attack their souls,” he said. During a recent symposium on Chicano politics at the University of Texas at Austin, Velasquez characterized the nationwide English First movement as a modern version of the anti-Irish, antiJewish agitation in the U.S. which accompanied downturns in the economy and sustained high unemployment in the last century. It’s part of the “send the Mexicans back where they came from and we’ll have lots of jobs” syndrome, he said. San Antonio educator Gloria Rodriguez Zamora said, “It sounds innocuous. Who would be against English in the U.S.? But when I look under the surface, the knot I get in the pit of my stomach has a label to it, and that label is ‘oppression.’ It’s one additional way for the majority culture to keep us down.” Jose Angel Gutierrez noted that there was a precedent when a law was passed to prohibit the use of German in the state. Other Chicano leaders see it as a backlash against the progress Spanishsurnamed people have made in the U.S. since the 1970s, winning more and more places on school boards and in city and county governments. Velasquez said voter registration and turnout has increased faster among Hispanic citizens than any other group. State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, DAustin, said Texas now leads the nation in the number of Hispanic elected public officials, with 1,466 compared to 588 in New Mexico and 450 in California. “Now, I sense,” Zamora said, “maybe there’s a group which says: `You’ve gone too far.’ Maybe they are testing to see how strong we are, how unified we are. And language is a very emotional issue.” Juan Bruce-Novoa, a Spanish professor at Trinity University, said this is really only the latest incarnation of the battle between English and Spanish speakers, which goes back 400 years. At that time, England was the inferior economic and political power and fought the Spanish Empire with words, scorn, and denigration creating stereotypes that persist to this day. Despite the strong participation of Mexican Americans and other Hispanic citizens in electoral politics in recent years, Spanish surnames may still be linked in the minds of some Anglo voters with pistol-packing caudillos and dictators left over from Hollywood and the dime novel. Speakers at a San Antonio conference on the Mexican legacy of Texas, sponsored by the Texas Committee for the Humanities, said the Hispanic population is seen as backward in its alleged refusal to learn English. In reality most Hispanic citizens do speak English, but a steady stream of new, non-English speakers into the U.S. obscures that fact. But rolling R’s and broken English are an important part of the Hispanic stereotype, which allows the dominant culture to maintain its feeling of superiority. That culture reinforces and even rewards those who play the “Ay, senor” game. Bruce-Novoa said that the entertainment industry has forced many women who spoke perfectly good English off-stage to speak in broken syllables “like idiots” before the camera. He said a Hispanic who does not speak with an accent runs the risk of Setting Language Borders By Mary Lenz THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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