EDINBURG, RGV – Legislation filed in Austin calls for a study on the impact of requiring state and local governments to conduct official business in both English and Spanish in certain designated “bilingual zones.”

State Rep. Terry Canales, the author of the legislation, said the Rio Grande Valley would be one such zone. In addition to all governmental bodies communicating to its residents in both languages, the Edinburg lawmaker wants to see road signs in both English and Spanish.

State Rep. Terry Canales

“Like or not, the majority of people here in the Rio Grande Valley, their first or primary language is Spanish. My legislation seeks to embrace that culture and to say, this is a bicultural, bilingual zone, where our traffic signs, our public announcements are done in both English and Spanish. It is a step towards embracing who we truly are as people and recognizing the importance of Spanish moving forward as we partner with our neighbor to the south,” Canales told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Think of the impact this would have on tourism from Latin America. It would be incredible, unparalleled. Not only the visceral feeling of being made to feel welcome, but the message it would send that the United States and Texas embraces Mexico. It would be a giant welcome mat. I get chills just saying that.”

Under House Bill 2678, the Comptroller of Public Accounts, in cooperation with the Secretary of State, the B3 Institute at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and other interested parties, would “conduct a study to evaluate the creation of bilingual zones in certain areas of this state.”

The bill states that in a bilingual zone, English and Spanish would be regarded as official languages. It says residents living in the bilingual zone would have the right to receive services from state and local governmental entities in both official languages; that residents may be heard before the state court system in the official language of their choice; that state and local laws be published in both official languages and given equal legal weight; and that both official languages have equal status in state and local governmental employment.

In conducting the study, the Comptroller would identify and evaluate “areas of the state along the border with the United Mexican States that may be designated bilingual zones.” The Comptroller would also assess both the impact the creation and operation of bilingual zones would have on the Texas economy, and evaluate the effect the creation and operation of bilingual zones would have on border and international relations.

Not later than September 1, 2018, the Comptroller would prepare and submit to the Legislature a written report containing the results of the study and any recommendations for legislative or other action, the bill states.

UTRGV B3 Institute

Canales said he got the idea for his bill after observing the rollout of UT-Rio Grande Valley.

“As UTRGV took off, one of their mission statements was to be a bilingual, bicultural and bi-national school that embraced Spanish just as much as it did English. The idea behind the bill, the genesis behind the bill is to embrace the same idea, that our heritage is Mexican, our heritage is Spanish and it should be embraced,” Canales said.

The B3 Institute at UTRGV aims to facilitate a process “through which the university becomes a bilingual, bicultural, and bi-literate institution.” As the university began to develop the institute, faculty and staff visited the University of Ottawa to see how that institution embraces both English and French. Academic courses at the university are offered in both languages. Indeed, the official languages of Canada are English and French, and, according to the Canadian Constitution, these languages “have equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.”

Canales said he is aware of how much Canada embraces both English and French and how UTRGV seeks to emulate the success of the University of Ottawa in becoming a truly bilingual college.

“Road signs, government correspondence, these are the hallmarks of a true bilingual zone. This is not the first of its kind. In Canada, there are areas where everything is in English and French. This is not a novel idea, it has been done before. People in other places have realized the importance that language plays, not only in the practical aspect of life but the economic impact a language can create.”

Dr. Francisco Guajardo, executive director of the B3 Institute at UTRGV, said the institute would not and could not advocate for any piece of legislation. However, he said it can “help illuminate policymakers with research and best practices.”

Dr. Francisco Guajardo

“There is enough research to suggest that having a region designated as a functioning bilingual and bicultural zone would enhance cultural activity, economic activity, and social activity,” Guajardo told the Rio Grande Guardian. “Such a zone would respect the culture and history of the region.”

Canales reiterated that having the Valley recognized as a “bilingual zone” would help foster better relations with Mexico.

“Mexico has its problems but I believe if we work together we can help solve those problems. This is a step towards doing that. When you talk about the importance of language, making sure things don’t get lost in translation, that is what this bill does. It makes sure the translation from one country to another is smooth, and especially since most people that travel from Mexico don’t leave the Rio Grande Valley, that we make them feel at home.”

Asked if other parts of the Texas-Mexico border, such as Laredo, Eagle Pass or El Paso, could be designated as “bilingual zones,” Canales answered affirmatively.

“As we start to study this concept further we will get a handle on what the costs would be. If we start it in once place, we would witness the positive impact it would have and it would grow. I think the zone defines the entire Rio Grande Valley but it starts right here in Hidalgo County.”

Canales acknowledged that some of his fellow legislators, particularly those who represent districts with a small percentage of Hispanics, might not be ready to support his legislation.

“I am a realist. I don’t think we have a political climate where something like this would be approved budget-wise but I do think we should start the conversation because I do think it is a realistic and laudable goal,” Canales said.

“I am not sure if we can quantify the upswing bilingual zones can create, the positive economic impact. I don’t know if it is possible to quantify but I do know that when it gives me chills, I know it is real.”