On January 6, 1912, President Howard Taft signed the Statehood Proclamation with these words, “The Mexican Americans of New Mexico succeeded in protecting their heritage by inserting provisions in their constitution which made Spanish an official language, equal to the English language.” President Taft’s conclusion is a blunt rebuttal to reports that Spanish is not “enshrined” as an official New Mexico language.
On Sunday, June 9, 2013, the ABQ Journal published an article, which purported to clarify the status of Spanish under the state constitution, other laws, and regulations. Unfortunately, the article further confused the issue by selectively citing the 1972 report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Language Rights and New Mexico Statehood.” New Mexico’s legal compromises that arose as statehood appeared imminent can only be understood in relation to Arizona’s positions. The Arizona Legislature and the Arizona Territorial Teachers Association opposed the joint statehood bill passed by Congress in 1906, and Congress was presented with a formal Protest Against the Union of Arizona with New Mexico arguing that there was a racial difference since the people of New Mexico spoke Spanish and could not be easily “amalgamated.” The protest rejected the idea of dual language protections supported by New Mexicans, and the push for joint statehood was roundly defeated in Arizona. The 1910 Enabling Act allowed separate constitutional conventions, but Congress prohibited New Mexico from explicitly recognizing Spanish as an official language. Nevertheless, the drafters of New Mexico’s Constitution showed determination and innovation by adding three specific provisions, referred to by President Taft, that protect the rights of Spanish-speakers (one related to voting, standing for elections, and serving on juries; a second one provided for the training of teachers in both languages; and a third provision protected the educational rights of children of Spanish descent). With these provisions, the framers effectively circumvented Congress’ prohibition, and, according to President Taft, accorded Spanish an official status equal to that of English.
The legal landscape regarding language use is considerably more complicated today than can be gleaned from the local media. For example, under regulations promulgated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, English-only rules violate Title VII, the federal civil rights statute against employment discrimination, if they are not narrowly written and enforced to achieve a legitimate business justification, for example, to promote safety. Even private employers, such as Whole Foods, are covered by these regulations. Moreover, the state statute prohibits discrimination on the basis of ancestry, which includes the language rights of Latinos and Native Americans.
The racial objections raised by Arizonans over 100 years ago provide insight into why the use of Spanish continues to be such a hot button issue. Speaking Spanish is not merely a cultural difference between Latinos and Anglos. From the days of statehood, the use of Spanish has been stigmatized and racialized, meaning that speaking Spanish can trigger bias responses, consciously and unconsciously, about the intellectual, social, and moral inferiority of the speaker. Corporal punishments and shaming were meted out for speaking Spanish in New Mexico schools, workplaces, and sports fields over many decades; journalists should excavate those stories. Anecdotally, students in my classes at both the law and medical schools report that they have not learned Spanish to avoid the humiliation and social barriers their families have known.
Consider that today more people speak Spanish as a native language, followed by English, than any other language except for Mandarin Chinese. Being English-Spanish bilingual is an accomplishment that should be incentivized. These tongues and the different world views that they impart form part of the cultural capital of New Mexico and, if cultivated, can contribute to the state’s well being and economic growth. Thus, all New Mexicans have a stake in preserving the use of Spanish as well as the indigenous languages. For many reasons, the framers of New Mexico’s constitution were visionary in deciding to “enshrine” Spanish as an official language.