Official in Louisiana's French-Speaking Stronghold Calls for English-Only Graduation Speeches

As an agency created in response to the long suppression of French in state schools turned 40, a south Louisiana school board member suggested that only English should be allowed in graduation speeches.

Rickie Pitre is among six people with French surnames on the nine-member school board in Terrebonne Parish, where the county's name is French for "Good Earth" and elders of the local Native American tribe speak French as their first language.

His proposal was made after co-valedictorians and cousins Hue and Cindy Vo, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, gave parts of their commencement speeches in Vietnamese during Ellender High School's graduation ceremony.

Cindy Vo translated her single sentence in Vietnamese, telling her classmates it was a command to always be your own person. Hue Vo spoke a bit longer in her parents' language, without translation, said board president Clark Bonvillain and schools superintendent Ed Richard.

"I don't like them addressing in a foreign language. They should be in English," Pitre said during a recent committee meeting.

He did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.

But Richard is dubious.

"I did advise them that I didn't think they needed to go there," he said. "But I'm only a superintendent, not a board member."

He said the board voted to have the department check out Pitre's proposal.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union, said the proposal might violate speakers' civil rights.

As late as the 1950s, children who spoke French in school were routinely punished.

"It seems like these issues will never go away," said Warren Perrin, president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, which is turning 40 this year.

The state constitution passed in 1974 specifically recognizes "the right of the people to preserve, foster and promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural origins," he said.

Terrebonne Parish is part of Acadiana, the 22-parish area settled first by French-speaking Catholics deported from Nova Scotia in 1755.

Perrin said the last Census found the Acadiana region to be the nation's most culturally diverse.

"Realizing that, we have to be sensitive to the many, many cultures in this region," he said. "It would seem the French, who have been subjects of prejudice, would be more sensitive to the issue. I find that extremely ironic."

Hue Vo said that in her speech, she told her parents that she is grateful to them, and honors the hardships they faced moving here from south Vietnam.

"It's very important to my parents that I keep my culture," she said. "I felt if I expressed myself in Vietnamese it would be more heartfelt."

Esman said no law gives students a right to speak in languages other than English, but a rule forbidding it might amount to racial discrimination.

In spite of the area's long French heritage, Spanish is probably now the most common language other than English, Bonvillain said.

"No one is out to do away with any second language," he said.

Rather than forbidding languages other than English, he said, the board may require students to keep such sections brief and translate them for the rest of the audience.