October 20, 2000


Anti-Spanish Propositions: Boon to Democrats?

By Domenico Maceri

The Colorado Supreme Court recently voted unanimously to remove from the ballot a proposition that would have given Colorado voters the opportunity to eliminate bilingual education from their state. The Court said the language of the measure was "unclear and misleading."

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R- Colo., and Linda Chavez, who spearheaded the movement to do away with bilingual education, said that they will be back with a new and improved version in 2002. The proposition setback represents a disappointment for them, but may in fact be a blessing in disguise for the Republican Party.

The measure copied Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education in California a few years ago. California's measure politicized many Latinos and the Colorado proposition would probably have had a similar effect. It would have encouraged those Latinos who are not citizens to naturalize and register to vote. In California, the majority of angry Latinos who registered to vote for the first time joined the Democratic Party. Not long afterwards, in the California election for governor, Latinos voted more than 70% to help elect Democrat Gray Davis.

To be sure, the anti-Republican sentiment in California had its roots in Proposition 187, which denied benefits to undocumented workers. Although the measure was declared unconstitutional a few years ago, Latinos remembered it well, seeing it as an attack on all immigrants, legal or illegal. Killing bilingual education merely added to their anger.

Republicans don't seem to learn. Attacking the Spanish language under the guise of forcing immigrants to learn English means assaulting its speakers. It's political suicide. Latinos see it for what it really is- a reaction to the growing Latino population and fear that English, and white America, are being pushed aside.

The sponsors of the proposition to get rid of bilingual education in Colorado-Tancredo and Chavez- will tell you that their concern is that children learn English and succeed. They blame bilingual education for the lack of success Latinos have in American education. Yet, Chavez is the leader of a group called One Nation Indivisible. Ron Unz, who spearheaded the anti-bilingual education proposal in California, has a web site titled Onenation.org. It's clear that while these individuals and their groups are aiming at linguistic unity by maintaining the primacy of English as the country's language, their real goals have to do with an apparent concern about the Balkanization of the US. In an article published in Commentary Magazine, in fact, Unz argued for a return to the idea of the melting pot to assimilate immigrants instead of following "diversity."

It's a false strategy. History tells us that immigrants don't need laws to spur them to learn English and integrate in American society. Fears about Spanish taking over echo similar fears about European immigrants at the turn of the century. In the past the language and the ethnic groups may have been different, but the situation was the same-fear that the status quo was being destroyed.

Although Tancredo, Chavez, and Unz do not officially represent the GOP, Latinos view these linguistic attacks as politically sanctioned by the Republican Party. Ironically, these measures, while on the one hand popular, have the side effect of bringing Latinos together and make them realize they can be a formidable political group, particularly in presidential elections.

The GOP platform this year suggests the Party has learned its lesson about anti-Spanish propositions and immigration in general. For example, the hostile language adopted four years ago, which reflected California's Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant measure, is gone. The new platform welcomes both "minorities and immigrants"into the GOP.

Gone also is the stand in favor of English becoming the official language of the country. That has been replaced by respect for other languages and cultures throughout our country. This was evident at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. California Assemblyman Abel Maldonado gave a speech completely in Spanish and George P. Bush, the Republican nominee's nephew, also peppered his speech with Spanish.

It's obvious that this year's changes in the GOP reflect George Bush's moderate stands on Latino affairs and immigration. So if some Republican "freelancers" such as Unz, Tancredo, and Chavez have not learned their lesson about bashing Spanish and immigrants, at least the official line has been modified. That's good news for Bush, but a bad omen for Al Gore and the Democrats, who will have to work a lot harder to convince Latinos that their home is with the Democratic Party.

The GOP moderate approach towards Latinos reflects a shift to the center of the political spectrum. George W. Bush needs to convince "freelance" Republicans to drop the anti-Spanish bashing if Republicans want to win elections, particularly in states with sizeable Latino populations.

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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