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NiLP Guest Commentary

Linda Chavez Thinks

the Sky is Falling . . Again

By Juan Cartagena (May 6, 2012)


Juan CartagenaLinda Chavez, the former head of U.S. English, is at it again. This time she warns of a new impending "cuco" that is coming to challenge what it is to be American in our times: Latinos, according to a new Pew Hispanic Center survey, do not identify as Americans foremost, Latinos are to blame because they are different, Latinos are shepherded into excessively thinking they are different by our government, and, as a result, Latinos fail the assimilation test of U.S. immigration.


We've heard her sing this tune before.


Back in the early phases of the modern English-Only movement, Chavez was its standard bearer. With her in charge of the language restrictionists, the country was asked to save itself from an invasion of Latinos who resisted learning English and who would destroy the fabric of America itself. What the country needed, Linda argued, was a law! A law that would force the language assimilation that Latinos rejected. A law that would change some defect in Latino comportment. A law which would force Latinos to learn English and yet - get this - do so without dedicating one extra dollar to the teaching of English.


That was Chavez crying wolf in the 1980s.


So it brought a sonrisa to my face to read Chavez cite amazing stats on the use of English by Latinos less than one generation later. A full 90% of Latinos, according to the Pew study Chavez relies upon, think learning English is crucial to success in the U.S. She goes on to cite that nearly all U.S.-born Latinos speak and read English well, with only one-percent of them remaining Spanish dominant, confirming in her words, "other studies in language acquisition." Wow! You mean that Latinos acquire English in the typical three-generation pattern of immigration? And all without a national English-only law?


Now Chavez warns us that by not saying they're "Americans" first, Latinos are effectively failing the assimilation test in a way that could breed "resentment" in some quarters. The survey Chavez relies upon recounts old news in the Latino community: a majority of Latino respondents refer to themselves first by their families' country of origin not by the "Latino" or "Hispanic" labels. Those labels were selected by only a quarter of the respondents and only 21% of respondents selected "American."


And yet even Chavez admits that in almost every other way, Latino assimilation is panning out. As the face of America changes, more Latinos think of themselves as "typical Americans" and that perception is correlated with higher income and with third generation Latinos. Latinos more than other Americans believe in that quintessential American work ethic that hard work can get you ahead. Almost begrudgingly, Chavez concludes that those attitudes say "more about Hispanic's assimilation than what they call themselves."


But, as with her English-Only crusade, Chavez seems to get hung up on the symbolism, not the substance. Put aside that Latinos seem to have more faith in the American Dream than other Americans, the problem is that they don't call themselves "American", that they are different because the government constantly reminds them that they are different by asking them if they are different. Were it not for the multiculturalism and the solidarity movements of the 1960s, the argument goes, Latinos would embrace assimilation and Americanism first and foremost.


It's as if decades of government-sponsored discrimination against Latino communities can be erased. The de jure segregation of Mexican American and other Latino public school children from white children? Not an issue. The forced deportation movements like Operation Wetback that ensnared immigrants and U.S. citizens alike? Not a factor. The preliminary finding of a federal court judge just last December that Alabama's HB56 was passed in a documented atmosphere where anti-immigrant was code for anti-Latino? Not to worry. The racial profiling by troopers on New Jersey's highways and the discriminatory Stop & Frisk practices by the New York Police Department? Again, not a problem. Racially motivated murders of Latinos only because they're Latinos? Irrelevant.


If Latinos see themselves as group apart, it is because they have been and still are treated that way. Somehow it doesn't stop them from exemplary American military service in countless wars. Doesn't stop them from rejecting the mutually exclusive labels of being from their families' country of origin and still being American. And doesn't stop Latinos from believing that hard work will get them ahead in this country.


Seems that these trends are a lot more important than labels.


Juan Cartagena is President & General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. He is a constitutional and civil rights attorney who has vast experience litigating cases on behalf of Latino and African American communities in the areas of employment rights, language rights, voting rights, public education financing, environmental law, housing and access to public hospitals. He can be reached at