JEFFERSON CITY — Nearly 200 Hispanic representatives from throughout Missouri attended the third annual Hispanic Day at the Capitol, doubling last year’s number. The growing event allows leaders of the Hispanic community to address the goals of unifying a voice for the community and increasing Hispanic representation at the state level.
Neither task is easy for such a diverse group, leaders said. Wednesday’s event boasted representatives with roots in 21 different Spanish-speaking countries, Mexico and Puerto Rico being the most common. In addition to different heritages, representatives also had different backgrounds, from education to political views.
“That’s why today is so important, we are all different, but we need to address all of the problems that we share together,” said Rafael Nun Marin.
Marin is one of the 15 members of the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which was created last month. The commission’s purpose is to serve as a moderator between the Hispanic community and the state government.
One bill, actually just one word, unified many Hispanic groups Wednesday against a House bill. The bill, HB-1337, would make English the “official” language for all state documents. The Hispanic representatives chose the bill as the most important issue for the Hispanic Commission to address.
Ironically, it was the only Hispanic member of the House who sponsored the legislation, which added to many members’ frustration.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, said it would just change one word, from English as the “common” language of Missouri to the “official” language. The only requirement mandated by this bill would be that state materials must be printed in English, but could also be printed in Spanish or any other language.
“I’m not going to do anything against my own community,” Nieves said.
Nieves, whose father emigrated from Puerto Rico and who couldn’t speak English when he arrived in New York, said that after he discussed the issue with some of the representatives, most left less concerned by the legislation. He added that the biggest concerns seem to come from a misunderstanding of what the bill does.
Genaro Ruiz, a commission member from Kansas City, said he understands what the bill does and is concerned about future actions that might be taken.
“There will be consequences that will affect immigrant communities,” he said. “In the private or public sector, someone might try to force ‘English only’ onto people who otherwise don’t know their rights.”
Nancy Malugani of Columbia said the bill is a waste of time and money and threatens to undermine efforts to get information to people in Spanish.
“Nobody doubts that the language you speak is English, so why do this?” she said. “We already have a lack of resources for Spanish speakers in health care and other areas.”