SANTA FE – When New Mexico high school athletes were told recently not to speak Spanish on a baseball field and a tennis court, and local grocery store workers complained they were told the same thing, it caused a stir.
After all, isn’t Spanish recognized as an official language in New Mexico?
Well, no, not really.
The state Constitution does not declare an official language. And an early constitutional provision that all laws be published in Spanish as well as English had a 20-year time limit. It was renewed several times but eventually allowed to expire.
However, New Mexico does have protections for Spanish speakers that stretch back before statehood. Those protections survive today in the state Constitution, in laws and in regulations, and their impact is felt from classrooms to courthouses to voting booths.
“We certainly have had historically a special relationship with Spanish, and we have an ongoing relationship with Spanish. And we’re going to have even more of one in the future,” said State Historian Rick Hendricks.
Throughout the state’s history, “the largest group of people coming here have always been Spanish speakers. … It’s always being reinforced,” he said.
New Mexico had the highest percentage of Hispanics – nearly 47 percent of its population – of any state as of July 1, 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
An estimated 29 percent of the state’s population over age 5 speaks Spanish at home, according to another Census Bureau statistic.
“If it isn’t a bilingual state, it seems that way to most of us,” said former State Historian Robert J. Torrez.
According to a 1972 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, when Mexico in 1848 ceded the area that is present-day New Mexico to the United States, an estimated 60,000 Spanish-speaking people lived here – although the report cautions that number is considered conservative.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 gave U.S. citizenship to the Mexican nationals who stayed in the ceded territory, and gave them certain rights in an effort to protect their culture and language. Some of those protections were incorporated into the state Constitution, which was ratified in January 1911.
The drafters of the Constitution “wanted to make sure there was some protection for the vast majority of New Mexicans who didn’t speak English, so they could continue to participate in the political process and the education system wouldn’t discriminate against them,” Torrez said.
And it also helped ensure the Constitution’s passage, the historian added.
“I think if there had been something suggesting English would be the official language, the Constitution wouldn’t have passed,” he said.
The Constitution says the right of any citizen to vote, hold office or serve on juries shall not be restricted by “inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages.”
Children of Spanish descent cannot be denied the right to go to public school, the Constitution says, and “normal schools” – which prepare teachers – are to train teachers to be proficient in both English and Spanish.
And ballots for ratifying the Constitution itself were required to be printed in both languages.
A 2011 New Mexico Law Review article by Lysette P. Romero makes the case that New Mexico in effect “has adopted Spanish as a quasi-official language.”
“The state has protected it and given it special status,” she wrote in arguing for enhanced procedural due process rights for Spanish-only speakers.
Laws require bilingualism
New Mexico’s election laws are peppered with Spanish-language requirements.
Proposed constitutional changes must be printed on the ballot in Spanish and English, for example, as must the samples of the text of each amendment that the secretary of state distributes to county clerks.
Sample ballots, official ballots, primary election proclamations, information about registration and voting, voter registration certificates – all must be printed in both Spanish and English.
In New Mexico public schools, about 60,000 students – or about 20 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade – are designated as English-language learners, according to Icela Pelayo, director of the Public Education Department’s Bilingual Multicultural Education Bureau. About 70 percent of them are Spanish speakers.
New Mexico is in the forefront of providing language access in the judicial system, according to Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Most commonly, the need is for Spanish, but the courts must accommodate speakers of dozens of languages. There are interpreters – employees or contractors – available for district, magistrate and metropolitan courts. Outside courtrooms, bilingual or multilingual court staffers get special training and extra pay to provide language access services to customers.
Not only Spanish
The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled “we have a robust right to access, regardless of language skills,” Pepin said.
In 2000, for example, the high court said potential jurors could not be disqualified just because they don’t speak English. The justices denied a request from then-District Attorney – now governor – Susana Martinez to overturn a Las Cruces judge’s ruling that non-English-speaking people could not be kept off juries.
In a 2002 ruling involving cases of Navajo speakers, the Supreme Court ruled trials must be postponed when no interpreter is available for potential jurors who have difficulty speaking English.
The state Legislature in 1989 passed a nonbinding “English Plus” resolution. It advocates the teaching of languages other than English and says proficiency in more than one language “is to the economic and cultural benefit of our state and the nation.”
“The intentions of early New Mexicans, who succeeded in securing statehood, are clear and enduring,” Romero wrote in her New Mexico Law Review article. “Past and present policies make clear that Spanish-speaking individuals, by virtue of the language they speak, have a unique standing in this state.”