'We the people' in any form
Arizona Republic
Jan. 17, 2005

José Cardenás

My Turn

Weedee Peepo. Weird.

I'm not talking about the title of Tony Burciaga's essay about governmental responsibility to "limited English" speakers. When you read Weedee Peepo, you get it pretty quick.

Running into Tony's widow, Cecilia, last Thursday . . . that was weird.

Cecilia does not live here and I have not seen her in years. Yet, there she was at a reception marking the opening of the legislative session. Coincidentally, the big local news that day was that some legislators are launching a new "English only" campaign, one that will be more divisive than the last and could cost us dearly in much the same way the controversy over having a King Day hurt Arizona's image and its economy ($500 million in lost revenues).

I told Cecilia that I've used Tony's work, including Weedee Peepo, in columns and speeches. In addition to being an award-winning poet and essayist, Tony was, to quote one of his book jackets, "a seasoned Chicano cultural activist, muralist, humorist and founding member of the comedy group Culture Clash." That background perhaps explains why Weedee Peepo is humorous and heartwarming, personal and powerful.

In it Tony remembers his parents preparing for their citizenship tests and saying to each other: "Have you learned el Weedee Peepo?" That was how the Burciagas pronounced the words that perhaps more than anything else make Americans, Americans: "We the People," the first three words of the preamble to the Constitution.

Tony's parents knew what those words meant. However well intentioned the proponents of HCR 2030 may be, I'm not sure they do.

The bill recognizes our history of diversity and acknowledges that this nation "continues to benefit from this rich diversity." But it then states, "throughout the history of the United States, the common thread binding individuals of differing backgrounds has been the English language." James Crawford, who has written extensively about the politics of "English only," claims otherwise: "Contrary to myth, the United States has never been a basically monolingual country."

Author and television news anchor Jorge Ramos makes a similar point in his most recent book. Ramos believes that this country's two principal characteristics are acceptance of immigrants and tolerance for diversity. That, he says, is what is characteristically American, not the English language.

In an interview, he explained why language is not what makes a country great. "I could say, let's teach people in South America English and they become a superpower? It doesn't work that way. The diversity, acceptance of immigrants, the drive for innovation and especially the concept of the American creed - liberty, equality, social justice - that is what makes America great."

The tension between recognizing the "benefit" of our "rich diversity" and fearing it is not new.

Years before the United States were united, Benjamin Franklin was complaining about bilingual street signs and bilingual advertising in Philadelphia. In statements he later regretted, Franklin questioned why Germans "should be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together, establish their language and manners, to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanicize us instead of our Anglifying them?"

Sound familiar?

Our legislators should try to understand, as Tony's parents did, that it is the idea of "We the People," not the language in which those words were written, that makes them so powerful. Burciaga's parents "knew what Weedee Peepo meant. It meant Nosotros el Pueblo, We the People. Whatever language we speak, we have the same goals stated in our Constitution."

Those goals include the formation of "a more perfect Union, and "ensuring the domestic tranquility." A new "English only" campaign will do the opposite.

The costs will be more than not being able to send out Spanish language water bills. The damage will be to our state's image and to our quality of life. It will be reflected in lost revenues and in our failure to capitalize on the "rich heritage" HCR 2030 touts.

Many immigrants are like Tony's father, who learned to read and write English but who was "more comfortable and confident in his native tongue." People like that will make more meaningful contributions to our society if government can communicate with them by, for example, sending out the Spanish language neighborhood newsletters that would be illegal under HCR 2030.

Martin Luther King Day is a good day for everyone to honor a legacy. For Arizonans, it is also a good day to remember the lessons of the past by dispensing with divisive politics and by focusing our time and energy on the issues that really matter.

Now that would be weird, but just like seeing Cecilia, it would be a very pleasant surprise.

The writer is a Phoenix attorney.