Diverse Reasons for Optimism

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

As we start a new year, it’s usually a good time to reflect upon the progress and shortfalls of the previous year while planning what we can hope to achieve in the coming year. However, this year is starting with a federal government shutdown, a crisis at the border (see p. 9), and a potential teachers’ strike in the nation’s second-largest school district (see p. 11), so our attention is focused on solving problems hanging over from last year instead of looking forward.


Despite these ongoing challenges, there is a feeling of optimism thanks largely to the vigor of a new, diverse Congress that looks set to defy the traditions that have slowed progress and could now propel the country forward by making the most of its diversity.


The new Congress boasts its first Muslim American woman and its first two Native American women. Miami’s Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is the first Ecuadorian American in Congress and its first Hispanic member born in South America, while New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Puerto Rican heritage, at 29 becomes the House’s youngest member ever.


“It just reflects the country. It’s the way it’s going to be from now on,” Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio, one of four Hispanics in the U.S. Senate, told the Miami Herald. “Congress should naturally reflect the country and sometimes it takes a couple of decades to get there because people have to get to a stage in their life where they can run, but I would expect that every year from here on out Congress will look more and more like America does.”


And it’s not only the make-up of Congress that has changed—the 2018 midterms brought into power many lawmakers at different levels of government who better represent the diversity of the U.S.


Michelle Lujan Grisham (see p. 10) made a first in New Mexico, where she was elected as the state’s first Latina Democratic governor, and immediately acted to change the state’s testing regime. Jared Polis of Colorado became the first openly gay man elected as governor in the U.S., while Kate Brown of Oregon—an out bisexual and the first openly LGBTQ person elected governor in the country—won her re-election.


Speaking more than one language undoubtedly gives perspective and helps engender the ability to empathize. As our society becomes more diverse, racially and linguistically, so should our legislators. Some white, English-only speakers may feel (unjustly, IMHO) threatened by this long-overdue shift to more representative government, but there is something they can do about it. They can start learning a second language and improve their understanding of another culture.


About five years ago, a survey showed that about 35% of Congress had at least some second-language ability and 20% claimed to speak another language fluently—considerably higher than the estimates for the general population. Hopefully, this latest Congress will get a much higher multilingualism score.


To negotiate our federal budget, solve our immigration issues, and settle labor disputes, we need leaders who are not only empathetic to the needs of others but also adept at communicating with understanding.


Over the course of this year, Language Magazine will be interviewing a cross-section of lawmakers to find out how their cultures and languages support their legislative roles, so by the end of 2019, we hope to have a clearer picture of how embracing diversity will help 2020 become the milestone for which we’ve all been waiting.

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