SAN FRANCISCO — In the year when the Congress has declared our national flower to be the rose, California is set to declare English to be our official state language. Pre-election polls suggest that Proposition 63--"the English-language amendment"--will pass by large numbers. Hispanic politicians have brought the vote down on themselves by a careless rhetoric against assimilation. By making California's future safe for English, though, the majority vote will damage more than it can protect.
California. California. In English, California lies west, notorious worldwide for its blond landscape, its blond vision trained toward a future so bright as to require sun glasses. In Spanish, California es el norte . For the Mexican, California is continuous with Mexico. The American eluded the past as he moved westward. The Mexican could never escape. The Mexican ended up a brooder.
About 20 years ago, when the spotlight of the black civil-rights movement opened to include Mexican-Americans ("America's forgotten minority"), Chicano activists stepped forward with a linguistic agenda. Whereas blacks had pressed for admission to lunch counters and law schools, Mexican-Americans limited demands for integration with a reluctance to change.
In the years following, Mexican-American politicians succeeded in making Spanish a kind of second language of California's public life. We find Spanish in the most public institutions of our lives--the schoolroom and the voting booth. What the politicians could not reach, institutional America has bestowed: Spanish has become the second language of the American Catholic Church; businessmen have found profit in espanol with billboards, commercials on Spanish-language TV, million-dollar ad revenues.
I once told a reporter from Time magazine with his pad and pencil poised as if to take my order, that in order for him to understand the Hispanic preoccupation with language, he had to remember the Mexican-American War. The reporter looked up with a skeptical grin. He put his pen down.
In recent years, Mexican-Americans have been compared to black Americans, but Mexicans are preoccupied with memory in ways that make us more like the American Indian. For like the American Indian, the Mexican-American harbors the conviction that his ancestral culture and language were diminished by the " gringo. " The Mexican-American and Indian live upon land their ancestors named but which they no longer inherit, except in unrefracted memory.
New California was predicated upon the assumption that this was the land of the setting sun. Those who came from east to west measured the rutted distance from the past and concluded that they had escaped. Western California is thus dedicated to the American Protestant belief in rebirth and discontinuity.
The sun passed over the shoulders of Mexican immigrants from left to right, which meant that the shadows and the slant of the sun, the desert sky, were continuous with what was remembered as home. Mexicans ended up in towns named in Spanish, segregated by discrimination and by diffidence. When employers had had enough of us, Mexicans were deported "home." The chaos of Mexican politics has left us, in the United States, without much of an interest in politics. An Indian memory within us has made us wary of assimilation, even as we assimilate. So blond California wonders: Why don't those people want to learn English?
For a long time, I misunderstood. I have argued with middle-class Mexican-Americans; we argued over bilingual education and the American melting pot. Only gradually did it become clear to me that Mexican-Americans are often asking for less, and for more, than they literally say. Bilingualists, for example, do not expect Spanish to become the equal of English in the United States. But they want Spanish to have (if only rhetorically) some equal dignity with English.
As other Californians worry about the economic miracle of Japan and freeway congestion and alimony payments, Mexican-Americans weigh metaphors. There is a search for some alternative to the metaphor of the American melting pot, some new metaphor for American life with a connotation that is not oblivion. In a recent magazine article, a Mexican-American actor suggests the metaphor of a salad; America is a tossed salad. One has also heard: America is a mosaic. A rainbow. What is sought is some image of social union that won't melt down.