FREE SPEECH ZONE | Language Shootout in Northfield


Jesse James stormed Northfield last weekend, six guns blazing, as he tends to do each September.  But this time, he and his gang didn’t speak a lick of Spanish.  And that was a mistake.

Last year, the Defeat of Jesse James Days organizing committee included a Spanish language re-enactment of the James Gang’s 1876 raid on Northfield as a way of reaching out to the town’s burgeoning Spanish-speaking population.  But while some applauded the effort and welcomed a more diverse audience, many were angered by the move.  “If you can’t understand English,” one opponent quipped, “then you shouldn’t be here.”  Online comment pages exploded.  Some wondered aloud what happened to Minnesota nice.

This year, all eight re-enactments of the raid on Northfield were conducted in English.  When a curious local asked at the information booth why there was no Spanish language version this year, he was told that the organizers found it “too controversial.”

Controversy over language is hardly confined to Northfield.  From California to the Carolinas, the issue continues to be a divisive one.  Yes, we are a nation of immigrants.  But today’s immigration, some argue, is different.  Unlike earlier newcomers they claim, immigrants today don’t want to be American.

Yet that has long been the argument made about new immigrants.  None other than Ben Franklin once asked: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”

German, it turns out, didn’t replace English as the native tongue. And one would be hard-pressed to use skin tone as a way of discerning German from English ancestry.

Let’s take seriously for a moment, though, the possibility that Latinos are different from Germans, or the Irish, or Italians, or any of the other innumerable groups once thought to be uninterested in learning English.  If that were the case, research would reveal Latino families unable to speak the language across generations.  Yet that isn’t what we see.  Not by a long shot.  Nearly all Latino adults born in the United States of immigrant parents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, report they are fluent in English.  Recent arrivals have some trouble—only about one-in-four Latino immigrants report being able to speak English well.  But a single generation later, that figure leaps to 88 percent.  And the grandchildren of Latino immigrants?  94 percent report English fluency.  It is, in short, a story typical of American immigration.

But the issue has never really been language, either historically or today.  The real concern is attachment—about how willing immigrants are to become Americans and to work to build a better nation.  In the eyes of those who favor English-only approaches, if you can’t speak English you can’t be a loyal and dedicated American.  To paraphrase one Northfield resident: if you need a translator, you must be flying some other flag at home.

People focus on language because it’s an easy indicator—easier, certainly, to observe than the inner workings of the heart.  The problem with that approach, however, is that it mistakes a single indicator—the language someone speaks—for a true measurement of national attachment.  Does working to learn English indicate something about someone’s attachment to the nation?  Sure.  Does flying the American flag?  Perhaps.  Each, however, is only a clue.  Just as you can speak English and hold un-American values, you can struggle with the language and be deeply committed to the nation.

What we’re after, then, is a sense of national attachment.  And here’s the irony.  In another Pew Hispanic Center survey, researchers found that the immigrants who are most attached to the country are those with the highest levels of engagement—those who participate in civic life and are active in their communities.  What matters, in other words, isn’t what language they speak at an event like Defeat of Jesse James Days; it’s that they show up.  Those are the folks who end up being the most committed citizens.

When we use clues like fluency in English as the basis for excluding people from public life, we are precluding the sort of national attachment that we hope all Americans—immigrant and otherwise—possess.  We are collectively taking aim and firing, not at our targets, but at our feet.

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