Bill making English official language steeped in hate

February 18, 2005


"He couldn't speak English, so me and the other workers made fun of him."
- State Rep. Russell Pearce, referring to a teenage co-worker. Arizona Republic, Feb. 11

 It seems Russell Pearce's disdain for Spanish speakers goes back to his teenage years. He now wants to elevate his disdain to the status of state law. Should it pass all the legislative hurdles - which is likely, given that right-wing, Republican extremists dominate the Legislature - the Pearce-sponsored HCR 2030 will be put to voters in 2006.

The reincarnation of the "English Only" law that was passed in 1988 and deemed unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court, HCR 2030 would make English the "official" language of Arizona. Pearce claims to have tweaked his "English Only" version so it will not suffer the fate of its predecessor.

(I can't help noting the irony. In poor English - using the objective-case "me" rather than the correct nominative-case "I" in the above quote - Pearce offers himself as champion of the English language.)

It appears that HCR 2030's value to its proponents is in declaring English Arizona's "official" language. From a practical perspective, HCR 2030 would change very little - basically, only some official correspondence would be affected.

The fact is, English already is the official language of Arizona. All official business in the state - court proceedings, birth-death-wedding certificates, tax transactions, etc. - is already in English. Everyone knows and accepts that.

So if HCR 2030 merely slaps the label "official" on what already exists, why all the fuss to make it state law?

My sense is that right-wing Republicans are emboldened by the fact that they control Arizona politics, and they are nostalgic for the bad old days when Mexican hating occurred under color of law. But, afraid to take us on face to face, they come in the back door and condemn Spanish, which is the underpinning of HCR 2030.

Attacks on languages are really attacks on the language speakers. An e-mail I received a while back regarding one of my columns illustrates this well: "My problem with you Hispanicks (sic) is ... with you peopel (sic) foreverry (sic) trying to force the loser Spanish language on us, demanding we give full spanish (sic) names to our cities and streets."

George Wilkins Kendall, describing in 1847 what is now the American Southwest, manifested a similar attitude:

"(The Mexicans) pertinaciously cling to the customs of their forefathers... . Give them but tortillas, frijoles, and chile colorado to supply their animal wants for the day, and seven-tenths of the Mexicans are satisfied; and so they will continue to be until the race becomes extinct or amalgamated with Anglo-Saxon stock."

The words are different, but the hateful attitudes of my correspondent and of Kendall regarding people of Mexican descent are in the same ballpark as the disdain expressed by Rep. Pearce in the opening quote.

HCR 2030 suggests that the linguistic foundation of our country is English. Well, I stayed awake during history class, and I can report with absolute certainty that before white folks got here, many languages - none of them English - were spoken in these here parts. These included Navajo, Hopi, Apache and other Native American languages.

The families of the many Americans whose lives were saved by the actions of the Navajo code talkers during WW II are glad, I would think, that Arizona wasn't an "English Only" state back then.

Oh, and Spanish, too. Spanish is not a foreign language in Arizona. It was spoken here way before English was. I've said this before, but it bears repeating, so listen up, haters:

To the extent that our state is "great," people of Mexican descent have contributed immensely to that greatness through their decency, heroism, honest work and strong work ethic. Quite simply, Arizona history cannot be told without discussion of the substantial and substantive contributions of Mexicanos and Chicanos. Indeed, some of the greatest aspects of Arizona's history were made in Spanish.

HCR 2030 supporters posit that not having a law that makes English the "official" state language discourages people, particularly immigrants, from learning English. Fact is, English classes in adult-education programs and other venues are so full that they often have to turn people away.

Yet Pearce rejected a suggestion by Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix, that HCR 2030 provide funds for community-based English classes.

So much for the claim that HCR 2030 is meant to encourage and help people to learn English.

For me, HCR 2030 transcends being a political issue. When I was young, the hateful attitude that I believe drives HCR 2030 was physical. My classmates and I were not just made fun of for speaking Spanish on school grounds. We were beaten. The right-wing Republicans' nostalgia is our nightmare.

At best, HCR 2030 is superfluous. Even its proponents admit it won't change very much. At worst, it is backward-looking and divisive. Hate - for a language or people - is not the basis of healthy legislation.

(To paraphrase essayist Tim Wise, hate mail will be graded for grammar, spelling, syntax, punctuation, and content.) c/s

Salomón R. Baldenegro, who works in the Diversity Resources Office at the University of Arizona, is a political historian and activist. In the tradition of Mark Twain, he has not let his formal schooling get in the way of his education. The "c/s" notation at the end of his column is a Chicano barrio term that stands for "con safos," which has no literal translation, but conveys a sense of closure, along the lines of: "that's it," "that's all I got to say," or "that's my story and I'm sticking to it." E-mail him at or call 626-9131.