The American Library Association has recently come under scrutiny for its nationwide effort to expand Spanish language materials, including books, music and videos. Major U.S. cities have been experiencing an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants for many years, and critics in cities as well as rural areas are starting to voice their concerns.
The most heated debate is taking place in Denver, where Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has sent a public letter to the city’s mayor opposing the use of library funds for the purchase of Spanish-language materials. Tancredo’s spokesperson asserted that providing these materials would decrease the “incentives to become American” and eventually increase racial tension. Yet, the congressman’s misguided nativism should not guide national immigration policy, and although there are those worried about the impact of illegal immigration, attempting to cut off Spanish resources in public libraries is certainly not the answer.
By asserting that there is one “American” identity, Tancredo ignores the reality of today’s changing society. In many areas, the idea of assimilation — that incoming immigrants lose their cultural identities to adopt those of their new country — is a relic of the past. In America’s cities, forced assimilation has been replaced by a spirit of multiculturalism that encourages immigrants to raise bilingual children aware not only of their adopted culture, but also of their roots. The multicultural ideal, that there is no homogenous “American” identity, is at the heart of modern American society. By suggesting that public funds only support English-language resources, Tancredo threatens to roll back the clock to a less tolerant era.
Spanish, the native tongue of much of America’s growing Hispanic population, is spoken almost as frequently as English in many parts of the nation. Government services from education to health care need to reflect this demographic reality. And libraries, which are integral community resources, must evolve to meet these needs.
Tancredo and his allies claim that taxpayer money should not be used to support resources that illegal immigrants might use. Besides the obvious flaws in his argument — it is virtually impossible to regulate access to public services and goods — he makes questionable assumptions. There is no evidence to suggest that most people interested in Spanish language collections are not taxpayers. And there are many non-immigrants who study the language recreationally. It is an injustice to the large, legal segment of America that speaks Spanish as a primary or secondary language to restrict information because of the unlikely possibility of abuse.
The ALA did consider building all-Spanish libraries in predominantly Hispanic areas, but they wisely decided to incorporate the Spanish collections into the existing infrastructure. This decision furthers the very ideals of multiculturalism that must be protected. True multiculturalism is created out of mutual respect fostered by constant interaction and education, which is not served by cultural sects living in isolated areas.
Modern American society is neither homogenous nor monolingual. Multiculturalism is the new national reality. Tancredo’s effort to limit the availability of Spanish language resources must be seen — and defeated — as the nativist, narrow-minded worldview it is.