Bilingual Hispanics Can Play an Economic Role in the Bay State

HISPANICS are the largest minority group in Massachusetts, with 287,549 people in a dozen or more cities and towns in the state. But most people would be surprised to learn that, says Deborah Ramirez.

Ms. Ramirez, a professor of law at Northeastern University in Boston, chairs the advisory commission on Hispanics set up by Gov. William Weld. The commission's work, she says, is to build bridges between the state's rapidly growing Hispanic population and mainstream society.

Ramirez, who grew up in the Latino sections of Chicago, is well-suited for such bridge-building. She vividly recalls her mother's stories of the humiliation she endured as an immigrant schoolgirl unable to understand English.

Ramirez grew up in an "English only" home and never attained fluency in Spanish. That might have aided her progress toward a law degree from Northwestern University, near Chicago, a post as assistant US attorney here (under then US Attorney William Weld), and her teaching job. But it left her feeling ambivalent.

"I sometimes feel as if I'm between worlds - that I'm not really of the Latino community here," Ramirez says, adding that language "is interwoven with ethnicity." She is making sure her own daughter, now 3, learns the ancestral language.

Another argument for being multilingual, according to Ramirez, is economic. She says Massachusetts's research and technology capabilities, plus its relatively well-educated Hispanic community, could put the state in a favored position under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This economic argument is one rationale for the work of the advisory commission, which began a series of public hearings on May 18. But the goal of giving Mr. Weld a "blueprint of the Hispanic community in the state," as Ramirez puts it, also springs from Weld's desire to understand the needs of this group.

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