Spanish Language Rights in California:
Debates over the 1879 Constitution

By the time California's first constitution was drafted in 1849, the Gold Rush had already transformed the state's Spanish-speakers into a minority (13,000 of nearly 100,000 residents). Without opposition, however, delegates to the constitutional convention approved an important recognition of Spanish language rights: "All laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions emanating from any of the three supreme powers of this State, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish." To some, this step seemed legally required by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), in which Mexico had ceded nearly half its territory to the United States. Although the treaty made no explicit reference to language rights, Article IX guaranteed, among other things, that Mexicans who chose to remain on the conquered lands would enjoy "all the rights of citizens of the United States ... and in the mean time shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction."

By 1878, however, when Californians met to revise their state constitution, support for minority language rights had waned. Not a single delegate to the convention came from a Spanish-language background. Moreover, the assembly was dominated by the nativist Workingmen's Party, which pushed through a number of draconian measures aimed at Chinese immigrants. In this climate the delegates not only eliminated the 1849 guarantee for Spanish-language publications, but also limited all official proceedings to English (a restriction that remained in effect until 1966), making California one of the nation's first "English only" states. The debate on this provision, and on an unsuccessful attempt to amend it, is excerpted from Debates and Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of California, 1878-1879 (Sacramento: 1880-1881), vol. 2, pp. 801-2.

Mr. SMITH of Santa Clara. I wish to offer an amendment to [Article IV].

The SECRETARY read: "Amend section twenty-four by adding `and all laws of the State of California, and all official writings, and the executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings shall be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language.' "

Mr. ROLFE. Mr. Chairman: I understand that refers to all judicial proceedings. I hardly think that it is necessary, and in some instances it would work injury. We have a provision in our present Constitution requiring laws to be translated and published in Spanish; that, I think is entirely unnecessary, and should be rescinded. We have statutes, however, passed for the purpose of meeting exigencies in some parts of this State, allowing, in some kind of proceedings judicial proceedings in the Courts to be conducted either in the English or Spanish language. Now, while I would not make that mandatory, and while I would say nothing about it in the Constitution, I would leave it in the discretion of the Legislature to make that same provision, for I can assure this Convention that there are Justices of the Peace in my county [San Bernardino], and their proceedings are judicial proceedings, who are intelligent men, and very able Justices of the Peace, who have no knowledge of the English language. There are settlements in that county, in certain localities and townships, in which the English language is scarcely spoken, the population being made up, almost entirely, of people who use the Spanish language. Now, in this instance, it would work a very great injury. ... Therefore I think that in these townships where almost the entire population is made up of a Spanish-speaking people, there would be no harm done in allowing the judicial proceedings of the Justices' Courts to be conducted in the Spanish language....

Mr. TINNIN. Mr. Chairman: I hope this amendment will be adopted. There was a day when such proceedings were necessary in the early days of this State but I contend that day has now passed. Thirty years have elapsed since this portion of the country became a portion of the Government of the United States, and the different residents who were here at that time have had ample time to be conversant with the English language if they desired to do so. This is an English-speaking Government, and persons who are incapable of speaking the English language certainly are not competent to discharge public duties. We have here in the Capitol now tons and tons of documents published in Spanish for the benefit of foreigners.

Mr. ROLFE. Do you call the native population of this State foreigners?

Mr. TINNIN. They had ample time to learn the language.

Mr. AYERS. ... In the section of the State which I represent [Los Angeles County] there are large portions of it which are entirely populated by a Spanish-American population, not a foreign population, but a population who were here before we were here, and I wish to say that almost without an exceptional instance these natives of California, who were adults at the time this State was ceded to the United States by Mexico, are still in the same condition, as far as their knowledge of English is concerned. There are but very few of them, if any, who understand our language at all, and, if I am not mistaken, in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo there was an assurance that the natives should continue to enjoy the rights and privileges they did under their former Government, and there was an implied contract that they should be governed as they were before. It was in this spirit that the laws were printed in Spanish. As Judge Rolfe says, there are townships in Southern California which are entirely Spanish, or Spanish-American. ... [I]t would be wrong, it seems to me, for this Convention to prevent these people from transacting their local business in their own language. It does no harm to Americans, and I think they should be permitted to do so....

Mr. BEERSTECHER. Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee: As has been aptly stated by the gentleman from Los Angeles, Mr. Ayers, there was an implied contract in the treaty of peace with Mexico that the Mexican citizen should enjoy the same privileges and immunities under the American rule as they enjoy it under the Mexican rule. And among these privileges and immunities was the right of having laws of this State printed in Spanish, and having the judicial proceedings of this State, at least in certain districts, ... conducted in the Spanish language. And the Codes of this State, to-day, contain a special provision that in certain counties of this State the proceedings may be in the Spanish language. ... Now, it is not the policy of any State in the Union to publish exclusively in the English language. In the State of Michigan, where I resided for eight years, our public documents were published in the English, the German, and the French languages. In the State of Wisconsin the public documents are printed in the English, German, and Norwegian languages. In Pennsylvania, in English and German; and it is the policy of the Western States, generally, with their cosmopolitan population, to publish State documents in more than one language. Be this proper, or be it improper, it is a matter that ought to rest in the discretion of the Legislature, and we ought not to put any Know-Nothing clause into the Constitution. ... I hope that the Spaniards will have their rights, as they have them to-day, and if the Legislature can assist them by having documents published in their language, I hope they will do so.

Mr. TINNIN. Where do you find in the treaty of Hidalgo any such contract?

Mr. AYERS. I say the treaty implied that.

Mr. BEERSTECHER. It says that they should have the same privileges and immunities.

Mr. SCHELL. If we are to be so exceedingly cosmopolitan, would it not be equally reasonable that our laws should be published in German and French?

Mr. INMAN. And Chinese.

Mr. SCHELL. And every other language that we have here.

Mr. BEERSTECHER. I do not say that our laws ought to be published in any but the English language; but I do say that there should not be any inhibition contained in the Constitution that would prevent the Legislature from publishing official documents in any other language, if it was desirable to do so. I do not see why the Governor's messages should not be published in German and French, and any other language, if it is desirable. ...

Mr. SCHELL. How many voters are there that speak the Spanish language down there that can also speak the English language?

Mr. BLACKMER. There are a great many, but there are a great many who are able to speak the English language who cannot read it.

Mr. GREGG. Can they read the Spanish?

Mr. BLACKMER. Most of them can.

Mr. HEISKELL. I demand the previous question.

The main question was ordered. ...

The amendment was adopted, on a division, by a vote of 46 ayes to 39 noes.

Mr. ROLFE. Mr. Chairman: I offer an amendment to the last amendment.

The SECRETARY read: "Add to the last amendment to section twenty-four the following: `Provided, that the Legislature may, by law, authorize judicial or other official proceedings in any designated counties or other localities, to be conducted in the English or Spanish language.' " ...

Mr. ROLFE. This amendment which I propose now does not interfere with the laws of this State, proclamations of the Governor, or anything of a State nature. It only refers to proceedings of a local nature, and then, unless the Legislature specifically authorizes that to be done, these local proceedings must be conducted in the English language. But I do say that, in localities in this State, where the population are almost universally of the Spanish-speaking people, it is unjust to them to compel them to conduct their proceedings in the English language. ... There are some English-speaking people there, it is true, but most of them understand the Spanish language. They conduct their business and all their proceedings in Spanish. They make their contracts in Spanish. Although a man may be very well-educated in Spanish, and may have a very ordinary knowledge of the English language, it may still be very inconvenient for him to conduct his proceedings in English. ... He will make mistakes in language which will be injurious to litigants before his Court....

Now, I say that we should take into consideration the fact that the American, or English-speaking people, of this State are the new comers. We settled this State and took it from these people when the Spanish was universally the mother tongue of the people. Now, I say when we take their country and the people, too, and make American citizens of them, we must take them as they are and give them an equal show with us whether it was so contracted in the treaty or not. I say it is nothing but just, as long as there is one township in the State which is populated mostly by these people. ...

Mr. WEST. Mr. Chairman: I have as high regard, sir, as any man for the foreign element of citizens of this State who have come here and identified themselves with the institutions of this country, and assimilated, they and their families, with its institutions; but I have no regard for that demagogism that panders to this foreign element, that follows it for years and years for the sake of the votes it affords on election days. I speak whereof I know when I say that hundreds of those who pretend to be citizens of California are recent immigrants from Sonora and other portions of Mexico, some of them bandits, cutthroats, and robbers, that come in and are placed on the Great Register, and vote ... while the Dutchman, and the Irishman, and the Frenchman must be naturalized and come in, in the regular way. It is an abuse, it is an outrage upon the institutions of our country. On election day they are corralled and voted, when they have not been in the State five days. ...

We have opened the doors of our public schools to them and their children, and attempted to educate them under the general influence of our schools, and if thirty years will not do it, I think we had better send missionaries into the county from which the gentleman from San Bernardino comes. I do not know that these gentlemen spoken of are competent to perform the duties of Justices of the Peace or any other position, but I am satisfied that the Spanish element do not ask it. It is the demagogues who ask it, and not the educated, thinking, and reading part of that population. I respect that population, where they are bona fide citizens, as much as any member of this Convention, but I want a period placed where the importation of Mexicans into this country and the collecting of them as the polls shall cease.

Mr. AYERS. Mr. Chairman: This is not a question of demagogism, or partisanism; it is a question of right. Now, I know that in Southern California there are districts and communities that are so entirely Spanish that if you deprive them of the right to continue their proceedings in Justices' Courts in Spanish, you will deprive them of justice. I do not see what it has to do with this case, whether people are run in, in bands, from Mexico, and put upon the Great Register, or not. That is a question for the Courts. If they are run in, in that way, and falsely placed on the Register, it ought to be stopped; but even if that was the case, it is no reason for taking away the rights of any portion of this people. It is only five years since the Mayor of Los Angeles could not speak the English language, and he was a very efficient Mayor. ... I hope that the amendment of the gentleman from San Bernardino will be adopted on the ground that it is right and just. It is all well enough for us here, who are strong, to stand up and denounce them because they are weak. We have taken from them their patrimony and their lands and now we are kicking them when they are down.

Mr. OVERTON. Mr. Chairman: I am not in favor of the amendment; neither do I care for this sympathetic appeal. We have done it, it is true. We have done it honorably, and we have lived up to their contract. We have protected them for thirty years, and if they have not learned to conduct their business in English, I think it is about time they did learn. I do not think, Mr. President, that there is a township in this State that there is not some Americans, or some foreigners, who do not speak the Spanish language, and we are doing them an injustice if we allow proceedings to be carried on in a language they do not understand. These cases are subject to appeal, and if the proceedings of that Court is had in Spanish, there is not a County Court in this State the proceedings of which are conducted in Spanish, and therefore you cannot appeal. If you are going to permit one township to have it in Spanish, there is just as much reason why another would have it in Swiss and another in Italian.

Mr. AYERS. Mr. Chairman: I would like to ask the gentleman whether the Swiss and Italians came here from other countries, or were born here, or whether they were found here?

Mr. OVERTON. They came here under a treaty, and have got just as much right as those under the Hidalgo treaty. These people sold us their country, and we have paid them the money. I am not in favor of printing laws in Spanish. Our County Court House has a room that is occupied by statutes published in Spanish, and there they remain to-day by the ton, and they are not worth anything. This State has paid out thousands and thousands of dollars thrown it away for the purpose of publishing books in Spanish, and we have got them there now, and no one ever has any use for them.

Mr. ROLFE. We do not ask the laws to be published in Spanish.

Mr. AYERS. Does the gentleman know that there are tons and tons of English literature in this building too?

Mr. OVERTON. Yes, I know there are. We can read it too. When it comes to publishing laws in Spanish, I hold that it is useless. There is not a nationality in this State that has not got papers that publish them, and they can read them there. ...

Mr. BLACKMER. Mr. Chairman: I do believe that these people have some rights that we ought to respect. I do not believe, because we are stronger, because we outnumber them and are continually increasing the ratio, that we should entirely ignore the rights that these people ought to have under a free government. It is a simple question whether we will do right because it is right, or whether we will do wrong because we have the power to do it. I look upon it in that light. I say that it is but simple justice that the Legislature be given the authority to allow, in certain localities, these Courts to conduct their business in that language, and, if necessary, that they may also publish in that language. ...

Mr. WICKES. Mr. Chairman: In addition to what has been said, I think it very good policy to give some official recognition to the Spanish language. It is a noble language, spoken by millions of people upon the American continent. ...

The CHAIRMAN. The question is on the adoption of the amendment offered by the gentleman from San Bernardino, Mr. Rolfe.

The amendment was lost on a division, by a vote of 27 ayes to 55 noes.