“Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out,” wrote Gloria Anzaldua in her bilingually titled book “Borderlands/La Frontera.”
That’s how Anzaldua, a Chicana writer born in Texas, described her experience growing up in Texas under a “English-only environment.”
Statements like hers feel so deep to me — they always string a cord when I think about the unfriendliness and history of English-only policies. I can feel it in my stomach, all the words I had to swallow when I was a kid growing up bilingual in the Southwest. I feared my ability to speak another language would seem disrespectful, or somehow not “American” enough.
The United States has never had an official language, but there have always been calls by some English speakers to make it theirs (and theirs alone). For some, maybe they think this means not having to “press 1 for English” anymore on the phone, or being able to skip the language screen when they use an ATM.
The reality of English-only laws in this country is much darker.
Anzaldua’s remark referred not only to her opposition to being muffled by some vague English-only attitude but also to the brutality of what English-only laws have meant for people subjected to them.
These laws have a disturbing and racist history. The drive to extinguish non-English languages allowed the deeply racist and brutal boarding schools for Native Americans, and the beating of Mexican-American children in New Mexico, Texas and California.
We’ve done it over and over in our history. And it doesn’t matter how it’s disguised — it’s always racist.
English-only laws don’t just silence non-English speakers. When government documents, ballots and even media aren’t available in the languages people actually speak, that destroys the transparency that the government owes its people — not just English-speaking people but all of them.
English-only policies not only make the erroneous argument that English is being displaced — the vast majority of immigrants, and especially their kids learn it — it also thrives on paranoia and fear of immigrants.
They negate the identity and rights of all Americans, and blind people to the unique contributions of Americans from different backgrounds — like the Navajo code talkers from World War II.
Declaring one language among many “official” creates a basis to deny American identity to certain people based on their language and heritage. It assumes that if people haven’t learned English, it’s because they don’t want to — another false anti-immigrant argument — instead of realizing that it’s difficult to learn English when you work multiple jobs.
These propositions underrate the harsh realities many immigrants already face. Ironically, legitimizing discrimination against them could only make it more difficult for them to learn English later on.
All this means immigrants feel inferior. It means their government can’t hear them, and they can’t hear their government. It means they feel like less than full citizens.
Instead of infringing on people’s freedom of speech, we should be reinforcing the freedoms of all citizens. We should celebrate the benefits of being a multilingual country that can communicate to the world, and each other, in every language.
At the end of the day, the goal of English-only advocates isn’t to help English learners actually learn English. It’s to create grounds for discrimination, based on racism, xenophobia and the fear of something different.
Don’t forget: The English language is an immigrant to this country, too. Modern immigrants still do their best to learn it, but it shouldn’t be because they’re scared and tired of being mistreated for speaking something less “American.”
In the end, our government has no business trying to tame people’s tongues.
Karla Molinar-Arvizo is a New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.