It was the Armenian threat that caused Carroll County Commissioner Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. to act.
After hearing that a Washington suburb had spent a fortune translating some land-use documents into Armenian, Shoemaker proposed an ordinance that would make English the county’s official language.
The measure has opened a fierce debate in this once-rural farming community, where the rolling countryside is now dotted with rapidly spreading bedroom communities.
“It’s divisive,” said Dane Manges, 31, a Manchester resident who works in Cup, a tea bar on Main Street here. He thinks the ordinance distracts from more substantive threats to the community’s traditions and heritage, such as rapid suburbanization. “These things could be maintained without an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality,” he said.
But Commissioner Richard Rothschild said the ordinance has nothing to do with xenophobia and everything to do with common sense.
“If you immigrate to America, then you’re going to learn our language. I’m not going to learn yours,” Rothschild said. “It’s simple — when in Rome, do like the Romans.”
About 35 miles northwest of Baltimore and bordered to the north by the Pennsylvania line and to the south by Howard County, Carroll seems an unlikely place to discuss a threat from any foreign language. Although the Latino population has more than tripled since the 2000 census, its numbers are still small: In a county of 167,134 people, only 4,363 residents, or about 2.6 percent, are Latino. More than nine out of 10 people are white and native-born and speak English in their homes, Census Bureau data show.
The county is also about as politically conservative as Maryland is liberal, with 65 percent voting for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Divisions there over growing diversity and immigration reflect the nation’s divide on the topics.
Some residents think the proposed ordinance is necessary to preserve American culture and its idea of the melting pot. Others think the measure is nothing but a symbolic form of barbed wire that suggests immigrants should go elsewhere.
At Lily’s Mexican Market on Main Street, Maria Luisa Castillo said she agreed that immigrants should learn English. Castillo, 37, who arrived from Mexico about 21 / 2 years ago, works as a clerk in the market, where people can pop in to buy a Salvavidas soda or a bag of churritos. On a busy day the other week, she used a smattering of both languages with customers who browsed aisles stocked with Latino foods, international phone cards, cowboy hats, soccer jerseys, and even rosaries and crucifixes.
“I think it’s very important that Hispanics know it in order to speak it,” Castillo said in Spanish. “A person who knows both has more opportunities.”
But she also sounded wary of the proposed ordinance and confused about what it would do. She wondered whether people could be prohibited from speaking Spanish in public.
If the ordinance is approved by the all-Republican board, Carroll would join Frederick and Queen Anne’s counties in passing such a law. A public hearing on the measure is set for Dec. 11.
Language has been seen as a definitive characteristic of national identity since at least the 18th century, even in a nation of immigrants. As far back as 1753, Benjamin Franklin complained that German immigrants were refusing to learn English and arriving in numbers that would overwhelm everyone else.
Such anxieties have resurfaced in the past few decades as the United States absorbed one of the largest waves of immigrants in its history. Thirty-one states have passed measures supporting English as the official language, and more than 50 such bills have been introduced into Congress since 1981, the advocacy group U.S. English says. Yet studies suggest that English dominance remains unchallenged.
“The data show that linguistic assimilation, at least the acquisition of English as a language of competence, is universal,” said Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center at City University of New York. “If anything, it’s attempts to hold on to one’s mother tongue that generally give way over time, even though it’s perhaps easier to navigate American society today without knowing English than it was a century ago.”
Shoemaker emphasized that the proposed ordinance for Carroll is not an English-only law; it would pertain only to governmental business. He was guarded as to the source of the anecdote about the Armenian land-use case — “I’m sworn to secrecy on that,” he said — but he also wants to encourage assimilation.
“Wave after wave of immigrants has arrived in our nation, and they’ve assimilated under one language,” Shoemaker said.
Kim Propeack, political director of CASA of Maryland, said the proposed ordinance’s only significance is its symbolism. Federal and state laws require that services they fund must be accessible in languages besides English. It’s also meaningless in the private sector, where businesses that are eager to win new customers have embraced bilingualism.
“On a policy level, this is just ludicrous,” Propeack said. “You have to wonder what they’re really trying to say.”
Shoemaker’s proposal found enthusiastic support at the Bowhunter’s Den, where several employees and customers saw the English-language proposal as a way of resisting change that they neither approve of nor like. They were astonished that President Obama had been reelected, annoyed over grocery store aisles set aside for Latino foods and angry that non-immigrants increasingly must accommodate newcomers and not the other way around.
“Send them all back where they came from,” said store owner Shane Fitzgerald, 33. “I shouldn’t have to ‘press 1’ to speak English.”
Downtown, at the Cup tea bar, however, several employees and customers were just as firm in their opposition to the ordinance.
“It’s just very ignorant and shows a fear of people,” said Jaimie Ferguson, 22, a barista who lives in Finksburg. “I think a majority of the county is against change; it’s very conservative. But the fact of the matter is, the world is changing, and if you want to be a part of it, maybe you have to change your values and see what happens, because maybe something really good could come out of it.”
Jose Alejandrez embodies that change. He started building his version of the American dream soon after leaving Mexico 13 years ago. He crossed the border on foot at the age of 15, nearly perishing in the desert. He picked vegetables in California, then apples in Washington. He washed dishes at restaurants in Maryland.
Over time, Alejandrez and his wife, Patricia, who grew up in Maryland, saved enough money to start Papa Joe’s, a small, cheerful place off Main Street that serves fajitas and other Mexican fare. Alejandrez calls Union Bridge home but practically lives at the restaurant. His day starts at 9 a.m. and usually goes to 11 p.m. or later. He’s proud of his business and pleased that it has weathered the recession.
Along the way, Alejandrez, 34, learned to speak English fairly well. But he wants to do better, so he attends English classes at the Carroll County Family Center. He thinks every immigrant should learn English, although he also hopes his three children will retain the language of his former homeland. Yet, especially as a businessman, he thinks the proposed ordinance is a bad idea.
“I guess it could make people feel unwelcome,” he said.