By the time she took her first break at 6 o'clock in the morning, my grandmother already had made a piping hot batch of flour tortillas. I can still remember that wonderful woman sitting in her small home in southwestern New Mexico as she ate a tortilla with butter, sipped her coffee and listened intently to the resonant voice of a commentator broadcasting from a radio station across the border in Juarez, Mexico.
From the time of her arrival in the United States in the middle of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 until her death in 1963, she never learned how to converse in English. If she needed to communicate with the schools or local governments in her community of about 5,000 people, her children or grandchildren interpreted for her. Certainly, she never expected an English-speaking country to accommodate a non-English speaking newcomer.
How things change. In the not-much-larger town of El Cenizo, Texas, recently, local elected officials stirred up a hornet's nest across America by becoming the first U.S. municipality in memory to enact a Spanish-only law. And not only did the mayor and two city council members pass an ordinance requiring that all public business be conducted in Spanish, they directed other local government employees to refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, under penalty of being fired.
As unacceptable and offensive as El Cenizo's action was, it was logical. One city council member says 80 percent of its 7,800 residents are monolingual Spanish speakers, and the other 20 percent are bilingual. City council meetings previously held in English were complicated because interpreters were required. The officials in the Rio Grande border town bowed to popular demand that the meetings be held in Spanish.
Trouble is, time and time again, the advocates for mass immigration have told America this kind of thing would never happen.
Federal judges across America should take note: Many Americans are seriously concerned about the primacy of English for good reason. About 25 states have adopted English-only measures, but Arizona's, passed in 1988, was struck down by the courts. The law passed by Alaska voters in November is being challenged as well.
To be sure, it is questionable whether such laws will resolve the growing challenges to the primacy of English in America, but the courts are whistling Dixie when they suggest by their rulings that no real problem exists. As canaries in the coal mines go, El Cenizo is a 500-pounder.
Still, it's wrong to blame the newcomer in general, or the Spanish-speaking newcomer in particular. Individual immigrants are not at issue; immigration policy is. If there is one basic truth routinely overlooked in this debate, it is that the language issue is a function of mass immigration, legal and illegal. By one estimate, 1,500 of El Cenizo's residents are undocumented.
The supporters of El Cenizo's ordinances of regression evidently don't know how imperative it is to honor the demands of an ethnically diverse nation-state, above all the need to honor a common civic culture.
Meanwhile, real-world circumstances are changing dramatically. When my grandmother crossed the border in 1916, the population of Mexico did not exceed 15 million people. There are more people than that in greater Mexico City today. Mexico's population is said to be about 92 million, but no one's sure of the real figure, given that several million Mexican citizens reside in the United States, legally or illegally. If New York City had numerous immigrant and linguistic enclaves at the turn of century, that situation is very different from Los Angeles today, which has a predominant linguistic enclave of monolingual Spanish-speakers.
It is those circumstances, together with a refusal on the part of government officials to acknowledge the stark realities of mass immigration, that produced the small explosion in El Cenizo and language confrontations from Miami to Los Angeles. During the four decades from 1920 to 1960, the United States adhered to a policy of limited immigration, and the emphasis was on assimilation into America's civic culture. Since the 1960s, a policy of mass immigration has resulted in a very different message.
After the language vote on the El Cenizo council, one member had this to say: "We were thinking about our city only, not the rest of the world." As ill-advised as the action was, it is more than Congress can say for itself in promoting mass immigration and undermining the national motto, e pluribus unum -- out of many, one.
(C) 1999, The Dallas Morning News