The movement against bilingualism is working up to a full head of steam, which is a good thing, but it is almost certain to stir up a fair amount of anti-Hispanic sentiment along the way, which is not. The demands by recent immigrants from Cuba and Mexico that Spanish be given official sanction must be resisted; the problem is that too often the resistance is directed against the immigrants themselves rather than their demands, resulting in hostility on all sides, not to mention confusion over the basic issues.
Both bilingualism and the backlash against it are strongest in those Sunbelt states that have received the largest numbers of Hispanic immigrants, though the organization leading the fight against bilingualism is located in Washington. It is called USENGLISH, which according to a report last week by Pacific News Service "has become one of the nation's fastest-growing nonprofit organizations," with 180,000 members who paid $20 apiece to join. Its objectives are "to make English the official U.S. language, trim bilingual education and do away with multilingual ballots and other government documents."
The USENGLISH agenda will receive its most significant test this November in California, where a proposition establishing English as the state's official language will be voted upon. It is expected to be approved, making California one of several states to enact such a policy and doubtless encouraging others, notably Florida and Arizona, to do likewise. Inasmuch as English is already the de facto official language in these states, making it so de jure is unlikely to produce startling changes in public or private life; but the symbolic effects, both positive and negative, could be important.
The resentment that bilingualism has provoked is not merely a reaction against the effort to impose a minority language on the majority society, but against the character of that effort. Too often pressure for bilingualism has taken the form not of requests that Spanish-speaking immigrants be helped in their efforts to assimilate themselves into American society and culture, but of demands that their refusal to assimilate be accepted by the English-speaking majority. In Miami and Los Angeles, where Spanish-speaking communities are large and politically sophisticated, bilingualism has been pursued aggressively, as a matter of right rather than privilege -- sometimes accompanied by expressions of disdain for majority sentiment and local traditions.
That this has produced anger in the English-speaking majority hardly comes as a surprise. Nor is it any surprise that some of the most outspoken opponents of bilingualism are people who learned English themselves after coming to this country. In the Silicon Valley city of Los Altos, for example, the successful campaign to make English the city's "official" language was led by the mayor, a second-generation Chinese American, and an immigrant from India whose native language is Gujarati. According to the mayor, the real issue is not language or immigration, but assimilation. "Anyone can move into town," he says. "They're all welcome . . . But we put anybody inside or outside our city on notice that if they want to communicate with city officials they would have to read English."
The Los Altos resolution is not, according to the mayor, "a denial or slam of various cultures," and there is no reason to question his sincerity. But there is a thin line between opposition to bilingualism and prejudice against Latins, a line that is crossed more often than many would prefer to admit. In Miami, where the established Anglo society has felt itself imperiled for nearly a quarter century, anti-Hispanic sentiment is both deep and wide, and it does not seem to have been ameliorated by the great boom in the city's economy that is the result of Miami's emergence as the major center of Latin commerce. The conflict in Miami over bilingualism is only a part, though a highly visible and emotionally charged one, of a larger conflict between cultures that thus far shows few signs of resolution.
On the specific issue of bilingualism, though, the opponents must be encouraged to hold firm. This is an English-speaking country with a powerful tradition of linguistic assimilation. A few miles from my house in Baltimore is a neighborhood where you will hear little except Greek spoken, but when residents of that neighborhood go out into the city at large they speak English -- as do residents of every other community in which old-country languages and customs still survive. These people understand that, however strongly they may cling to their native languages within their own residences and communities, once they enter the general society they are expected, as Americans, to speak the language of that society.
It is one thing to assist immigrants and new citizens as they struggle to learn and master what is, after all, a difficult language, but it is quite another to capitulate to demands that their own language be institutionalized. This latter is what the advocates of bilingualism want, and it runs so contrary to American custom that it must be resisted vigorously. Nothing is to be found in the Constitution about reading, writing and speaking English as obligations of American citizenship, but that we do so is one of the implicit assumptions out of which our national fabric is woven; attempts to legitimize another language as "official" can only weaken that fabric, because they permit people to enjoy the fruits of citizenship while remaining isolated linguistically from the general society.
That having been said, it must be acknowledged that bilingualism is probably an issue that will come and go of its own accord. The most vehement proponents of it have tended to be older immigrants whose personal and emotional ties to their native countries are strong; this is especially true of the Cuban community in Miami, many older members of which treasure dreams of returning to a Cuba liberated from communist control. But their children, and their grandchildren, are Americans; many may still speak Spanish at home, but elsewhere they usually speak English -- and usually every bit as fluently as do members of the English-speaking community. As these people mature, dreams of Cuba libre are likely to fade; and as that happens, so too the demand for bilingualism is likely to diminish.
But although this eventually will come to pass, official approval of bilingualism can only delay it, by permitting immigrants to defer their assimilation and to separate themselves from the culture that they have, by the very act of immigration, asked to join. Just because their numbers and political influence are relatively large, they are not entitled to any special dispensation allowing them to avoid obligations of citizenship that other immigrants have willingly -- indeed gratefully -- fulfilled. When in America one must do as the Americans do, and the Americans speak English.