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Friday, June 23, 2006

Language is the flashpoint in the immigration debate

Second only to the war in Iraq, immigration is shaping up as a defining issue in the November national elections.
In Wisconsin, we’re about as far away from the Mexican border as you can get without being in Canada, but that doesn’t mean we’re detached from the debate.

One of the flash points of the immigration debate is where the Spanish language fits in American culture. It’s a topic that most people have an opinion about.

I’m reminded of that each month when we include Vista magazine in The Week in selected communities.
The insert is included in many of our papers this Sunday. Vista is a monthly national newspaper magazine of Hispanic news and culture.

We include it as part of our mission to bring news and information to as many of our readers as possible. The Hispanic market continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments in Walworth County.
The more people who read and are engaged by The Week, the better vehicle it is for our advertisers who depend on us to get the word out about their businesses. And because The Week is delivered free, it’s the advertisers who in effect pay for each subscription to The Week.

Last month, for example, I received a call from a vendor who will be at the Taste of Whitewater over the Fourth of July. They thought adding Vista attracted just the kind of consumers they were looking to reach.
But not all the calls I receive are positive. Many feel a publication like Vista has no place in The Week.
One phone caller said, “We shouldn’t print Mexican and put it in a general newspaper. It should be English.
“If you don’t have enough respect to learn the language of this country, maybe you shouldn’t be here,” the caller continued.

“It’s not helping people. If people want to do more than just stand out in front of Home Depot waiting for a job, they should learn to speak the language. It’s not doing anything for the immigration cause when you’re putting out Mexican instead of English in an English newspaper.”

The e-mail bag brought these responses:

“I am a former teacher. Illiteracy in America is a very important topic to me. Your circulation of Vista magazine only contributes to the problem of functional illiteracy.

“If you cannot read and write English in America, you are functionally illiterate. This is not a racist or judgmental statement. It is a fact. If you are in America, you need to speak and read English. If you do not, you will miss out on many opportunities.

“If you moved to France, would you expect the entire country to change its official language to English, just for you? Of course not.”

My view is that we’re not promoting Spanish as our national language, nor are we promoting illiteracy.

I think everyone agrees on the importance of knowing English to function in our society. It’s a requirement of citizenship. In fact, Walworth County is one of the few counties nationwide who has passed a resolution declaring English as the official language of county government.

If I did move to France, I’d certainly learn the language and would not demand that the French speak English just for me. All I’d ask is that I could still read The Week, even though it was in English.

In any case, we’ll be hearing more about these issues in the months ahead. We’re interested in your opinions as well.

You can comment online at or send a letter to the editor at
~Dan Plutchak, editor


Blogger Vlad said...

The nature of Walworth County is such that diversity of any sort is a culture shock. Immigrant populations do not have a large enough base in an area like this to publish their own language papers. If they did they would, and should.

My family immigrated to Chicago from Europe in 1956. Like any immigrant family, including Hispanic families, my parents knew that in order to achieve economic success in this country for themselves and their children that they would have to learn English.

Not speaking English does not equate with illiteracy. If you can read in one language you can learn to read in another. I do both and father read and wrote in 5 languages. Just because the syntax may not always follow English, and searching for the right word with which to express oneself takes some time does not mean much. Becoming fluent in a new language as an adult is difficult. Try it sometime and see how helpless and stupid it makes you feel around people that are fluent in that language.

In spite of my parents fluency in English they still read papers and novels in their native language. After retirement they slipped back into what was most comfortable to them and that was their first language. Many foreign language papers are published in big cities like Chicago as are Hispanic papers. Most immigrants read a little of both.

In my opinion these criticisms are based in racism and xenophobia.If we want immigrants to assimilate taking away liguistic access is not the way to go. We are also talking about only one generation of immigrants that this effects. The children of these immigrants will not need Spanish language publications unless they want to keep up on their first language-such as Spanish.

I grew up in what was always a neighborhood of immigrants- first Eatern European like my own, and then Hispanic and Middle Eastern. By and large these families all want the same thing-a better life for their children. They work hard in an often hostile environment to achieve this goal. Whatever the reason for publishing a supplement in Spanish, it's a good idea in an area like this where there really are no neighborhoods that allow this.

Good citizens are those that are able to achieve economic success and language is a big part of that. The idea that one needs to make immigrant groups as uncomfortable as possible makes no sense to me.

2:26 PM  

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