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A Page from History: Spanish in Congress in 1853

In 1853, according to the House of Representatives, Territorial Delegate  José Manuel Gallegos became the first Mexican American to serve in Congress. Representing New Mexico, Gallegos spoke no English, and had to rely on bilingual colleagues to help him conduct his work in Congress.

In 1853, it was not yet the norm across the United States to speak only English. Educated people were expected to know more than one language, and ordinary people were not expected to know English. Gallagos asked for an interpreter, but his request was denied.

Gallegos was not the first Hispanic delegate — that would be Joseph Marion Hernandez of the territory of Florida in 1822 — and he was by no means the last person to speak Spanish in the House.

Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila of Puerto Rico greeted the Pan-American Congress of Journalists in Spanish in 1926 along with a representative from Texas (their remarks were translated into English). Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez  began a speech in 1973 with a blessing in Spanish.

Tim Kaine of Virginia gave a speech in Spanish in 2013 to show support for immigration reform, just as Texan Mickey Leland did in 1981 to support language provisions in the Voting Rights Act.

Spanish is often spoken in less formal situations in Washington, D.C., and it is no wonder. According to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, the United States has so many Spanish speakers that there is only one country in the Americas with more: Mexico.

Fear of Spanish is not a good reason to oppose Puerto Rico’s statehood, any more than it was a good reason to oppose New Mexico’s statehood.

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