Speaking Abilities: Vice President Agnew, Spanish Speakers, and Foreign Born Americans in 1970

The Vice Presidential papers of Spiro T. Agnew contains a transcript of a press conference which took place in the White House on July 7, 1970. Agnew reportedly said,

“It is one of the disabilities of our culture as Americans that we don’t have more attention paid to the need of our citizens to speak the language of our contiguous neighbors. There are very few Americans, I think, that are fluent in Spanish, along with the 2,000-mile border that separates us from Mexico.”

Agnew – a lifelong member of the Republican Party – accepted that speaking Spanish (even as a primary language) was not a disqualification for citizenship in the United States and he addressed the situation of “Spanish-speaking citizens” as a set of linked social “problems.” Seeing himself as “a minority citizen” by virtue of his father’s Greek ancestry, Agnew spoke of the acceptable arousal of the “public conscience” by “members of minority groups” to “use demonstrative measures to trigger the public interest.” (1)

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During an official state visit to Greece in October 1971, Vice-President Agnew dedicated a plaque in Gargalionai, the hometown of his father, who immigrated to the United States in 1897. Official White House Photograph, Spiro T. Agnew Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Vice-President Agnew’s stated support of Spanish speaking Americans was a surprising element of a set of government policies relating to bilingualism, which by the late 1960s had become a political issue. In June 1967, President Johnson established the Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs, which brought together cabinet-level secretaries to work together to make sure federal programs included Mexican Americans. (2)  In 1968, the passage of the Bilingual Education Act (BEA), Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, had made bilingualism in the classroom into a federal issue by allowing the federal government to offer grants to local elementary and secondary schools, with the goal of assisting “children of limited English-speaking ability.” (3) In December 1969, President Nixon signed a bill (passed by Congress, 315 to 81) which transformed the Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican-American Affairs into the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People (CCOSS), broadening its mandate on paper to include all of the approximately 10 million Spanish speakers in the United States. (4) The CCOSS would soon include fourteen high-level executives from across the federal government and a staff of about 30 people.

Vice-President Agnew’s involvement with bilingualism as a policy issue warrants attention, in part because Agnew himself may have initiated his meeting with the CCOSS, even though he had no official role with the committee. (5) Agnew saw his contribution to the work of the CCOSS as an offshoot of his work as Chairman of the National Council on Indian Opportunity, which President Johnson had created by executive order in 1968. The order had designated the Vice President as the official chair of a council which devoted itself to ensuring economic self-sufficiency of Indian reservations. (6)

One of the major problems, as Agnew saw it, was that over 50% of Spanish speakers in the United States were of a very young age, and that the inability to communicate restricted the level of economic opportunities for “Spanish speaking Americans.” The language issue was one of education at all levels: within grade schools, secondary schools, and colleges. Though it is unclear whether Agnew supported the training of teachers to teach standard classroom subjects in Spanish, he thought language “an impediment of our system, and I think we should pay a lot more attention to languages in our secondary schools, for example, in the encouragement of more people engaging in language pursuits in college.” (7)

The relative importance of Spanish speakers in government was also discussed during Agnew’s 1970 meeting with the CCOSS. Although the Vice President indicated that there were sufficient numbers of qualified “Spanish-American citizens of the United States” to serve as diplomatic representatives to Latin American countries, there were comparatively fewer Spanish speakers in the federal government “at policy-making levels.”(8) The political value of these public servants was never to be forgotten, a point which Agnew’s aide, Arthur Sohmer, considered of utmost priority. In fact, two months later, Sohmer suggested that President Nixon should announce a program to hire more Spanish speakers in the administration prior to that fall’s congressional election. (9)

Agnew’s most strongly articulated viewpoint was that citizens who did not speak English needed to eventually learn the language in order to compete for good paying jobs. For example, in August 1970, the Vice President had the consent of President Nixon to announce the creation of the National Economic Development Association (NEDA), a nonprofit tax-exempt corporation which opened nine regional offices in major cities to promote small businesses among Spanish-speaking minorities, notably Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Mexican Americans. (10) During an October 1970 trip to Lubbock, Texas, the Baltimore Sun reported that Agnew had emphasized the social progress of minority groups:

“When black Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans see the gates of equal opportunity open for the first time, they are going to react by demanding their full share of freedom…full share of economic justice. The result will be new pride, new hope, new impatience—and new unrest. That, too, is a sign of progress within the American system.” (11)

Indeed, Agnew’s statements on bilingualism were cast in assimilationist tones. He seemed to suggest that speaking a second or non-native language was mainly a barrier to overcome, not an expression of human evolution worthy of cultivation for its own sake.

Notwithstanding a preference to utilize CCOSS for political gain – a reflex typical of the Nixon administration – Agnew returned in 1971 to the issue of Americans who spoke Spanish. Upon the 161st anniversary of Mexico’s independence in September 1971, Agnew met with Jose Juan de Olloqui, the Mexican ambassador, and Henry Ramirez, then Chairman of the CCOSS, among others. Agnew highlighted that the United States ranked fifth among nations with Spanish speakers and that “nearly one-third of our new immigrants each year happen to be Spanish-speaking.” To him, linguistic differences appear not to exclude immigrants from citizenship. (12) Indeed, Agnew’s continued identification of “Spanish speakers” as Americans implied not only his commitment to the liberal belief that group political identities warranted representation within American politics, but respect of foreign-born Americans from officials in the federal government.

While concern for the prosperity of Spanish speakers was real during the Nixon years, the scope of CCOSS’s mandate remained limited. The recommendation that Congress support a “national bilingual educational program”—offered by Vicente T. Ximenes, member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, during the Congressional hearings to establish CCOSS – does not appear to have resurfaced. Moreover, CCOSS throughout its history focused on immigrants from nations in the western hemisphere (particularly Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico), with far less concern for Spanish speaking immigrants from South America, Spain, the Philippines, or Africa. A more adverse limitation of CCOSS in the long term was the fact that the U.S. Congress would have to re-authorize the committee in five years. When that time came in late 1974, the parsimonious Representative H.R. Gross of Iowa single-handedly used a parliamentary maneuver to kill the bill that would have reauthorized the CCOSS. (13) By that time, the tenures of both President Nixon and Vice-President Agnew had already ended.

Beyond the Spiro T. Agnew papers, other state of Maryland collections at the University of Maryland Special Collections which tell the story of Spanish speakers in the Americas include the Brantz Mayer collection, the Cuba Company archives, the Overseas Education Fund of the League of Women Voters, and the Women in Development collection.

 


Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich is the Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections and University Archives in Hornbake Library, where he works under the Curator on collections which tell the story of political officials and civic groups in the state of Maryland. He received his MLS from UMD’s iSchool and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. His interests include archival history, political development, and institutional change.

  1. “Press Conference of Spiro T. Agnew Vice President of the United States and Martin G. Castillo Chairman, Cabinet Committee on Opportunity for the Spanish-Speaking,” Press Release, Office of the White House Press Secretary (July 7, 1970), p. 4, part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 15, Folder 33, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries; Peter Grose, “Greek Town Welcomes Agnew,” New York Times (October 20, 1971). Vice-President Agnew was photographed with Chairman Martin G. Castillo, perhaps during the July 7, 1970, meeting: The Spanish Speaking People of the United States: A New Era, A Publication of the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People, ed. Carlos Conde (Fall 1970), p. 9, available online at Institute of Education Services (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED044220.pdf).
  2. The Mexican American: A New Focus on Opportunity: Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican American Affairs, 1967-1968 (Washington, DC: Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican American Affairs, 1967-1968), available online at HathiTrust (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/101178527). See also Gareth Davies, “The Great Society after Johnson: The Case for Bilingual Education,” Journal of American History 88:4 (March 2002), available online at JSTOR.
  3. “Elementary and Secondary Education Amendments of 1967,” U.S. Public Law 90-247, p. 816-820, available online at Government Publishing Office (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-81/pdf/STATUTE-81-Pg783.pdf).
  4. 4. “Spanish-Speaking People,” in CQ Almanac 1969, 25th ed., p. 846-48 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1970), available online at CQ Press  (http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal69-1246982).
  5. Spiro T. Agnew to Martin Castillo, draft letter (June 10, 1970), “Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-speaking people, 1970-1973,” part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.5, Box 19, Folder 28, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries. The Spanish Speaking People of the United States: A New Era, A Publication of the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish Speaking People, ed. Carlos Conde (Fall 1970), p. 11, available online at Institute of Education Services (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED044220.pdf).
  6. “Press Conference of Spiro T. Agnew Vice President of the United States and Martin G. Castillo Chairman, Cabinet Committee on Opportunity for the Spanish-Speaking,” Press Release, Office of the White House Press Secretary (July 7, 1970), p. 2, part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 15, Folder 33, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries. See also Thomas A. Britten, The National Council on Indian Opportunity: Quiet Champion of Self-Determination (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014).
  7. “Press Conference of Spiro T. Agnew Vice President of the United States and Martin G. Castillo Chairman, Cabinet Committee on Opportunity for the Spanish-Speaking,” Press Release, Office of the White House Press Secretary (July 7, 1970), p. 1-4, part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 15, Folder 33, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  8. Ibid., p. 1-4, part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 15, Folder 33, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  9. Arthur J. Sohmer to the Vice President [Agnew] (October 22, 1970), “Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-speaking people,” Agnew papers, Series 3.5, Box 19. See also John D. Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 209-210.
  10. Memorandum, C. D. Ward to Vice President (Agnew), (July 31, 1970), part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.5, Box 19, Folder 28, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries. See also folder 122 labeled “Announcement of NEDA [National Economic Development Association], August 21, 1970,” in Series 3.7, Box 15, part of Spiro T. Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 15, Folder 33, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  11. Agnew is quoted in Philip Potter, “Agnew Traces Youth Unrest to Progress, Social Change” The (Baltimore) Sun (Oct 13, 1970), A5, available online at ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  12. “Transcript: Statement by the Vice President of the United States, 161st Anniversary of Mexican Independence, Washington, D.C.” (September 16, 1971), part of Agnew papers, Series 3.7, Box 6, Folder 25, Special Collections, University of Maryland libraries.
  13. “Spanish-Speaking People,” in CQ Almanac 1969, 25th ed., p. 846-48 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1970), available online at CQ Press  (http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal69-1246982); “Spanish-Speaking Committee,” in CQ Almanac 1974, 30th ed., p. 511-12 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1975), available online at CQ Press (http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal74-1221220); “H.R. Gross,” Wikipedia, available online (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._R._Gross).
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One thought on “Speaking Abilities: Vice President Agnew, Spanish Speakers, and Foreign Born Americans in 1970

  1. Excellent post.

    On 1/19/2017 10:10 AM, Special Collections and University Archives at UMD wrote: > WordPress.com > hornbakelibrary posted: “The Vice Presidential papers of Spiro T. > Agnew contains a transcript of a press conference which took place in > the White House on July 7, 1970. Agnew reportedly said, “It is one of > the disabilities of our culture as Americans that we don’t have more > atte” >

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