Multilingualism in the U.S.

I wrote this piece in “honor” of the 4th of July, 2012.  It originally appeared on Righteous Anger.
On the 4th of July, we’re usually treated to an endless wave of flag-waving celebrations of a mythical America.  Yesterday, I ran across an article on Counterpunch entitled Tom Paine and the Fourth of July.  Much of it was mildly interesting, but not anything that would stop me in my tracks.  Towards the middle of the article, though, I read the following passage:

“Contrary to the propaganda of anti-immigrant and ‘English-only’ demagogues today, the U.S. was not founded on monolingualism. In 1776 many in the colonies – especially Pennsylvania – spoke and read only German, even though their ancestors had immigrated from Germany more than 100 years earlier. When Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it had that document also published in German as well as English.”

As a native Arizonan, not to mention the Anglo wife and mother of Mexican-Americans, the debate around immigration and language are dear to my heart.  So often, we hear Mexican-Americans condemned for speaking their mother tongue.  “They just refuse to assimilate!” the right-wing screams, as if “assimilation” is admirable.  (Ask any Trekkie, assimilation is not a good thing.)  Assimilation means becoming more Anglo, more European.  Speaking English.  Refusing to acknowledge from where you came and from whom.

Many of the people in my state are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Our largest county, Maricopa County, is where the Arizona Temple is located.  My own family was sent down by Brigham Young to “settle” central Arizona, ending up in the White Mountains.  Many of our lawmakers are Mormon.  Outside of Utah, there are few states more controlled by the LDS Church leadership than Arizona.  These individuals are also overwhelmingly right-wingers.  They make up the group who passed and rabidly support SB1070.  The people who demand photo ID at voting booths.  The people who don’t want any state business done in Spanish.  In other words, the people who demand that Mexican-Americans forget their past and assimilate.

A major tenant of Mormonism is learning the past, learning about the generations of your family that came before you.  Doing a certain amount of genealogy is an absolute requirement for any member of the LDS religion.  So, let’s think about this.  Mormons demand that their own members learn about and keep records of the past.  Mormonism started in New England.  In New England (and most of the colonies), people spoke German as their first or only language for over a century after coming to the colonies.  The Declaration of Independence was published in both English and German.  So, how do “English-only” devotees in Arizona reconcile that they are opponents of what the venerated forefathers believed in and practiced?  How do the Arizonans who cling to Mormonism and its veneration of the past reconcile that they are actively fighting the rights of others to do the same?  I suspect they simply choose to remain ignorant of the facts.

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