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Speaking in Tongues

English-language vote belies state's growing diversity


On a recent Tuesday morning, freshman Rep. Raul Labrador, an immigration attorney from Eagle, voted in committee to make English the state's official language.

A few days later, on a beautiful sunny Friday, I caught up with him at Chilango's, the taco truck behind the Statehouse, ordering cinco tacos and a Jarritos soda.

I was chatting in Spanglish with a construction worker named Jesus, waiting for my tamales when Rep. Labrador walked up.

"Quién es ése abogado?" asked Jesus, who came to Boise from Mexicali years ago. "Who's that attorney?" he wanted to know. "He helped my wife with her papers."

"Labrador," I told him. "He's in the Legislature now."

Rep. Labrador recognized me and then the man. They shook hands and greeted each other briefly in Spanish.

In the House State Affairs Committee debate on S. 1172, which makes English the state's official language in the realm of government documents, transactions and meetings, an emotional Labrador said that his mother forbade him from speaking Spanish in public when they moved to the United States from the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. The measure passed both the House and Senate and now awaits the governor's signature.

In the hallway after the meeting, I asked him if he ever speaks Spanish in public as an adult.

"No mucho," Labrador replied, quickly switching back to English as gringo lobbyists and lawmakers hovered around us.

While the layers of identity and racial politics in Idaho are increasingly complicated, the Legislature remains a bastion of white Christian privilege. Photos of past legislatures line the Statehouse walls, showing near conformity in dress, hairstyle and complexion through the generations.

Gov. Butch Otter recently remarked that many of today's lawmakers are stand-ins for the guys he served with in the 1970s. Perhaps he meant philosophically, but according to a recent Scripps Howard News Service study, 55 percent of Idaho lawmakers were born between 1925 and 1945, making up the oldest, and possibly most old-fashioned, state lawmaking body in the nation. Among the younger lawmakers are guys like Labrador, who even if he does not realize it, live squarely in the multilingual and multicultural world that has become the Idaho reality.

Consider again the scene at the Chilango's truck. Our friend Jesus went back to work, but Labrador and I sat down to eat, along with freshman Nampa Rep. Brent Crane, whose wife, I learned, is a Cubana.

This all-American scene outside the Statehouse contrasts sharply with the paternalistic tone of debate in State Affairs.

Rep. Carlos Bilbao, an Emmett Republican, grew red-faced and angry as he told how his Vasco parents picked up a newspaper when they got off the boat and taught themselves English.

"They did it on their own," he said. "We did it on our own."

He later asked accusingly if the Hispanic Cultural Center in Nampa teaches English classes, apparently unaware that hundreds of Spanish speakers are learning English through the center and that English language classes across the nation are filled to capacity. Perhaps Bilbao is also unaware that Basque nationalists have struggled for years to fend off the imposition of Spain's national language, Castilian, on their schoolchildren, heroically preserving their culture against the odds.

Ken Andrus, a Lava Hot Springs Republican who also likes to bring debate back to his personal experience, told how he hired a Mexican man 24 years ago because, he said, "I looked in his eyes and I thought he was honest."

The two communicated in sign language and gestures as his worker learned English. After some years, the man brought a wife back from Mexico, but she hides from Andrus because, in his view, she does not speak English. Making English the official language may provide the incentive for her to learn, Andrus surmised.

The sponsors of the English-language bill, Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls and Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, produced no evidence that English faces any particular risk in Idaho.

"I wanted to find something that would compel me to vote no," Labrador said at the hearing.

Much of the opposition to this symbolic bill was of a symbolic nature: Opponents said that declaring a language to be official is divisive, does not acknowledge diversity, is not fair. But buried in the testimony against the bill were several stronger arguments. The bill could prevent ballots from being printed in Spanish, said Adriane Wright, legislative advocate intern for Catholic Charities of Idaho.

"Such a provision decries our Catholic and American value of civic engagement and effectively ensures votes are excluded. The message here is that some people are not welcome to participate in the political process," Wright told State Affairs members.

There are no government documents currently in existence that the bill aims to shred, Raybould told me.

"We're looking into the future," he said, anticipating a push for dual documents.

But many government agencies do print documents in Spanish or provide translations. Brett DeLange of the Attorney General's Office consumer protection unit asked the committee in no uncertain terms to guarantee that their significant volume of Spanish-language publications could continue under this law.

The English-language bill was part of a quartet of bills this year aimed squarely at Latino immigrants.

Two of them, S. 1158, a measure that would have forced business owners to pay worker disability costs for employees without working papers, and H. 112, which would have shielded insurance companies from false advertising claims in foreign language ads for policies, were killed.

The fourth, S. 1157, which was also headed for a House vote before moving to Otter's desk, will deny public benefits to those who are not lawfully present in the United States, a group that is largely ineligible for the benefits anyway. Lawmakers who support this type of legislation swear it is not racially motivated or anti-immigrant, but their arguments were neatly undermined by Mexican President Felipe Calderon during President George W. Bush's recent visit south of the border.

"Yes, I do have family in the United States and what I can tell you is that these are people who work and respect that country," Calderon said, according to a Knight Ridder report.

Calderon added he did not know their legal status, but did know this: "They pay their taxes to the government. These are people who work in the field. They work in the field with vegetables. They probably handle what you eat."

You can reach Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371.