Culture Clash

La Torre de Babel

January 30, 2012

Multiple Pages
La Torre de Babel

Alejandrina Cabrera was born and raised in America and graduated in the 1980s from the same Arizona public high school as former UFC heavyweight champion Cain “Brown Pride” Velasquez. On Wednesday a judge in Yuma County—a flat, sun-murdered vacuity in the Grand Canyon State’s dusty southwestern corner—ruled that Cabrera does not possess the rudimentary English skills necessary to serve on San Luis City Council.

A video of Cabrera’s court appearance reveals a woman with a weaker grasp of Inglés than even José Jiménez, Speedy Gonzales, or the Frito Bandito:

Prosecutor: Where did you go to high school?
Cabrera: In 1986.
Where at?
In, um…in 1983.
Excuse me—I asked you when—where did you go to high school?
[Pause] Yes.
What school?
After, uh, high school, um, I went to college.
And where did you go—
[Judge Nelson interrupts]
Nelson: Just a moment. Mrs. Cabrera, you can step down. You can go back there.

The judge had heard enough. In his ruling that disqualified Cabrera from eligibility to run for a seat on the San Luis City Council, Nelson pointed to a “large gap” between Cabrera’s “basic survival English” and the level of aptitude required to perform her duties. “It was clear to the court that she was stymied by many questions, did not understand many questions, failed to comprehend what was being asked, and guessed at answers,” Nelson wrote. Cabrera’s lawyers appealed Nelson’s ruling on Friday and are expected to file an appellate brief today.

“Although E Pluribus Unum sounds nice in theory, it tends not to work in practice, especially when one emphasizes the Pluribus at the Unum’s expense.”

Arizona has become a bellwether for what will likely be America’s grandest cultural divide of the 21st century: the demographic struggle between Anglos and Hispanics, two groups that are split along a seemingly intractable linguistic rift. Arizona is home to an ongoing immigration dispute that has pitted the governor against the president. The state recently outlawed a “Mexican-American Studies” program that was deemed to encourage Hispanic resentment against Anglos.

In 2006, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that made English the official state language. Although the United States has no official lingua americana, a recent poll shows that two-thirds of Americans prefer that English be legally enshrined. In last week’s GOP debate, sour-tempered silver gnome Newt Gingrich said he favored making English the official national language.

This has all fallen on deaf ears in the heat-wilted border town of San Luis, AZ, probably because nine out of ten residents speak Spanish at home. The 2010 US Census pegged the city’s population as slightly over 25,000, with a decisively dominant 99% of its residents being Hispanic. (The quotient was less than 90% in 2000.) So as someone who’s fluent in Spanish but only possesses “survival English” skills, Cabrera would adequately represent her local constituency.

Whether she and her native tongue represent Arizona (still less than a third Hispanic) or America (still only one-sixth Hispanic but expected to grow to about one-third by 2050) is the sticky matter. Cabrera may become the Rosa Parks of American bilingualism, and the humble courthouse in which she’s waging her battle may one day be remembered as La Torre de Babel.

Some will reflexively smear the “English-only” crowd as “haters” who only seek to divide our nation. It’s worth noting that such indefatigable accusers-of-hatefulness constantly trumpet America’s differences in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and politics, and never in a way that fosters unity. Rather than cheering for assimilation or common ground, they eagerly whip up division and resentment along such lines, always taking whatever side they perceive in their dimwitted romanticism to be the underdog. Operating from the implausible premise that diversity tends to unite rather than segregate, they have now seized upon language as another continental divide, attempting to argue that if we passively sit back and allow language to separate us, it will somehow bring us all together.

Others contend that language—even more than religion and ethnicity—is the primary agent of cultural cohesion. “A common language is the glue that holds a people and a nation together,” Senator S. I. Hayakawa once stated. In an infamous rant called “I Have a Plan to Destroy America,” former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm said that endorsing bilingualism would “make the United States a ‘Hispanic Quebec’ without much effort.”

People always say that if we’d lost World War II, we’d all be speaking German. Linguists who specialize in “language conflict” such as George Hempl and Daniel Abrams & Steven Strogatz propose that language is a zero-sum game. They argue that when languages are forced to “compete” in the same territory, there’s usually a winner and loser, though the winner may loot a few of the loser’s catchphrases in the process. According to a 2008 report compiled by scholars in Spain and Finland, “In all cases, a final scenario of dominance of one language and extinction of the other is obtained.”

Throughout history, this has been the case—languages such as Gaelic, Welsh, and innumerable North American tribal dialects all ultimately surrendered to English. In Central America, Spanish snuffed every language in its path. Even reputedly successful bilingual and multilingual nations such as Canada and Switzerland seem to merely host disparate monolingual areas that exist in a perpetual state of mutual unease.

Perhaps more than military might, Latin was the primary tool in establishing the ancient Roman Empire. Some speculate that Rome eventually lost its grip on Byzantium because Latin was never able to overcome Greek as the Eastern Empire’s main trade language. And when the Roman Empire finally collapsed, Latin itself became Babelized into separate languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish. So whereas multiculturalists propose a gloriously harmonious patchwork quilt, history predicts a bloody fight to the death.

Although E Pluribus Unum sounds nice in theory, it tends not to work in practice, especially when one emphasizes the Pluribus at the Unum’s expense. The European Union was founded on the same sort of starry-eyed unity-through-diversity claptrap that now infects the United States. Ironically, its home base is a place where the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish can’t even agree that a nation called “Belgium” exists.


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