At a raucous meeting on Nov. 14, the officials of Pahrump, Nevada voted to make English their official language. The town also banned the flying of foreign flags and denied benefits to illegal immigrants.
Pahrump has been in the national spotlight before. It was parodied as the epitome of small-town closed-mindedness on recent episodes of NBC's "Studio 60,” when a TV star is arrested for speeding and gets a taste of rough justice from a judge right out of the old West who doesn’t like Hollywood liberals or their shows. It’s also a town depicted in the 1996 movie “Mars Attacks” that sees up close the damage that unwelcome aliens can do.
At their November town meeting, Pahrump’s villagers lived up to their fictional image, loudly booing a resident who called the new language ordinance racist and anti-Mexican, and they shouted down an ACLU observer who warned that banning flag displays would expose the town to First Amendment lawsuits. No swing to the left for the town represented by Democrat Harry Reid, the new majority leader of the U.S. Senate. No, the mood at the meeting was all English, all red and white, with very little blue or any other color.
Located midway between Las Vegas and Death Valley, Pahrump was once known primarily for gambling, racing and whoring. But increased growth – Pahrump’s population doubled in the 1990s – has quickly moved the town from brothel community to bedroom community, a place where you can mow your lawn, play golf and go to PTA meetings when you’re not commuting to your day job in Las Vegas.
Of course you can still drink, gamble, pay for sex, and drive fast in Parumph, but if you want to stay legal, you’d better speak only English while doing so. Plus you’d better speak English when you talk to the three town councilors who voted for the law, and to the gentleman of Italian ancestry who proposed it.
That won’t be hard for Parumph residents. According to the 2000 Census, over 91% of the town’s population of 24,631 speak only English. About 1,300 speak Spanish (that’s a little less than 6% of the population), and two-thirds of them are also fluent in English. So the new ordinance requiring English is aimed at Pahrump's 494 Spanish speakers -- along with some 127 other residents whose English is not so good. It's a law targeting 2.5% of the population.
The flag-flying part of the ordinance was apparently aimed at a Mexican groceria where the colors of the Mexican flag – not the flag itself – are painted on the storefront, slightly higher than but also much smaller than the prominent American flag painted there as well. And the banning of benefits to nonanglophones is moot, since all public benefits are administered by the state and county, not the town of Pahrump.
It’s not clear whether the name Pahrump, taken from the language of the Southern Paiute, violates the new law. That didn’t come up at the town meeting, nor did it occur to residents that their state’s name wasn’t English either. But it probably won’t be long before some ambitious nativist asks that the town start calling itself Water-flowing-from-the-rock -- that's what Pahrump means in Ute-- or better yet, Speak-English-or-get-out-of-town-fast, which is what the name has meant since that fateful Monday in November.