SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A Texas state Senator demanded that an immigrant rights activist speak English not his native Spanish at a legislative hearing this week, sparking a debate over the use of Spanish in public.
State Senator Chris Harris leveled his pen at an activist testifying against a bill on immigration and told him it was "insulting" that Antonlin Aguirre of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.
As part of his remarks, Aguirre said he came to the United States in 1988, at which time Harris interrupted and said. "Did I understand him correctly, that he has been here since 1988?"
When the interpreter replied that was true, Harris shot back "Why isn't he speaking in English, then?"
Aguirre attempted to respond in English. The translator said Spanish is Aguirre's "first language" and he preferred to deliver his testimony in Spanish, since it is "his first time delivering testimony."
"It is insulting to us, it is very insulting," Harris said. "If he knows English, he needs to be speaking in English."
Several people in the room booed Harris' remarks, while others appeared to agree, with one woman heard to say, "yes!."
The debate has rekindled a decades-old debate over whether it is proper to speak Spanish in Texas, which was once a part of Mexico and before that a part of the Spanish Empire, according to Jaime Martinez of the Cesar Chavez Legacy Foundation in San Antonio. The foundation offers English classes to immigrants.
"That's our culture," Martinez said. "Spanish was here first. Many of us learned English later. They can never take away our culture. They can never take away our heritage."
The issue is particularly painful for many older Mexican-American Texans who recall being punished for speaking Spanish in school in the 1950s. Many said the policy that was used at the time, of mainstreaming students in English, made them feel ashamed of themselves and their heritage.
Harris' office released a statement saying that his comments were not intended to be derogatory.
But an English rights advocate said that he believes a strong majority of Americans would agree with Harris.
"I think the question you have to ask is, do you have a civic duty to learn English if you want to live in this country?" said Tim Schultz, Director of Government Affairs for US English, a group working to make English the country's official language. "This man had lived in this country for more than 22 years, and I think most people would think that is a reasonable request."
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Greg McCune)