On February 22 Michigan’s house “with no warning” voted in favor of House Bill 4053, which would make English the state’s official language for all public records and public meetings. Republican representative Aaron Miller called it a “great day” and did not see the bill as exclusionary: “We’re not turning people away. We’re simply saying English is our common language.” If the measure passes the Republican-dominated Senate and is signed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, it will make Michigan the 33rd. state to have some kind of official English law.
The bill itself is largely for show; it would not ban the use of translations for material needed for individuals in the state, though it would no longer allow these sorts of translations to be mandatory either. Opponents see it as divisive and unnecessary, since no documents are published solely in a language other than English already. As Democrat David LaGrand explained, “If we start signaling that we shun differences, this is a dark moment for our republic.” Looking at Michigan’s current population, it is hard to pinpoint who Rep. Tom Barrett may have targeted when he sponsored the bill. The U.S. census estimates only 5% of the Michigan population is Latino and an additional 3% as Asian, whereas the foreign-born population of the state is estimated at just over 6% of the population. Rep. Barrett, for his part, sees the bill as a way to unify, rather than divide the state: “Diversity with no shared values drives us deeper into our different corners and silos.”
With immigrants forming such a small demographic portion of the state, why does Michigan need this law now? The United States is one of just eight nations to have no official language — a sticking point for many who oppose the use of languages other than English in official capacities. The Official English movement was at its peak decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, after S.I. Hayakawa formed U.S. English in 1983, a citizens’ action group that realized it was easier to have states adopt official English stances than to pass a constitutional amendment making English the official language of the United States.
U.S. English’s central founding principles maintain that immigrants cannot succeed in society without knowing English and the ability to conduct official business in other languages harms them. Yet if we consider the longer history of language politics in America, it becomes clear that allowing translations of official documents has a deep history in dozens of states across the country. These translations did such a great job of incorporating immigrants into the nation that most people no longer remember the laws.
For over a century, states accepted the need for translations and even paid for their publication. Over its long history, Michigan itself has singled out numerous languages for translations of official documents. In 1851, Michigan state law authorized the publication of its constitution in the Dutch language and the governor’s annual message was printed in an assortment of languages, including German, French, and Dutch in over a dozen years between 1829 and 1865. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, state law included a provision that allowed for election instructions in a foreign language — though by 1885 the English language was required to hold office in the state.
Michigan was not alone in the extension of language rights to non-English speaking residents and citizens. Laws mention at least a dozen languages in over two dozen different states and territories during the 19th century. States and territorial legislatures provided translations for non-English-speaking citizens and residents. Instead of fearing that English would be subsumed, legislators hoped that it would allow non-English-speaking residents to invest themselves in an American system of participation in democratic politics and lawmaking. The translations also exhibited a recognition and respect for the place of these non-English speakers in the state or territory.
While today’s Official English movement is rooted in an effort to exclude other languages, the 19th century legislative approach to languages was explicitly inclusive. The most extensive example of language translations in states and territories comes from the Southwest, where Spanish could be found on ballots, in legislatures where elected officials could not speak English, in courts, on juries, and in political campaign speeches. Spanish-language speakers even received some language rights in three state constitutions.
This language support in the Southwest was due to a real need to use Spanish in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the U.S.-Mexican War by ceding all of Mexico’s Northwest — resulting in the creation of the current U.S. Southwest. The treaty acknowledged the Mexican citizens on the land by extending them U.S. citizenship. These new citizens in what became the states of California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona spoke Spanish and would learn about their new nation in Spanish. In New Mexico the vast majority of the legislatures in the first decades as a United States territory spoke only Spanish, and using the language in official capacities was the norm. Had they not used Spanish or permitted individuals who only spoke Spanish to run for office, the federal government would have excluded over ninety percent of the population.
Thus the early legislature in the territory functioned almost entirely in Spanish. By 1853 Congress recognized this reality and passed a law that permitted the employment of translators and interpreters in New Mexico’s legislature. Most of the territorial laws prior to 1874 were passed in Spanish by Spanish-speaking lawmakers. The legacy of this Spanish-dominated legislature is present on English-language copies of the territorial session laws, like the one from 1865 that states “translated from the original Spanish” on the vast majority of laws.
Voting rolls from an 1864 election have survived from precincts in Valencia County, New Mexico and are written entirely in Spanish. Spanish-surnamed New Mexicans voted and their tallies were submitted in Spanish to the territorial governor. In 1902, U.S. Senators visited New Mexico and interviewed New Mexicans who required translators. The senators were surprised to find that courts used Spanish-speaking jurors, sometimes kept their dockets in Spanish, and at times needed court translators because someone was being tried who could only understand English.
While New Mexico used Spanish to a degree that was unparalleled in other contiguous states and territories, it was not alone in supporting the new Spanish-speaking settlers. California, especially Southern California, where Mexican settlers had created ranches after the secularization of the missions in 1834, included a substantial number of these former Mexican citizens. Their initial political power is apparent in the acceptance of eight Spanish-speaking delegates to the first constitutional convention and in Article XI, Section 21 of the 1849 constitution, which promised Spanish-language translations of all official documents. California received statehood with this provision in the constitution. There was no official English requirement to obtain statehood. When the state of Colorado was created in 1876, its constitution also included a translation provision for both German and Spanish.
These historical examples demonstrate how state officials used translations and conducted official business in other languages to encourage greater participation in the government. They exposed non-English speakers to the inner workings of the government and signaled the importance of these minority language communities in their state. Language translations offered a bridge for the incorporation of larger numbers of residents into the state, and by extension, the nation.
Official English laws discourage fuller participation in society. The passage of these laws divides the nation by hiding the use of other languages and sends a message to those who do not speak English fluently that the government does not recognize or represent them.
Rosina Lozano is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of An American Language: The History of Spanish in the United States.