Author: Deb Kong
My grandmother never learned to speak English, other than what was required for her citizenship test. After immigrating to the United States in her 30s, she spent most of her life in Chinatown, and then living in a senior housing complex with other Chinese people.
Because she only spoke Cantonese, my grandmother was never fully able to participate in society’s larger discourse. But she raised five children who did. Four of them went onto become public servants who spoke fluent English.
I wonder what my grandmother would have thought of the latest flap over ”Nuestro Himno,” a Spanish-language version of the national anthem that was recently released by a British producer as part of the growing immigrants’ rights movement.
Adam Kidron, director of the record label Urban Box Office, wrote “Nuestro Himno,” which is sung by artists including Gloria Trevi, Wyclef Jean, Pitbul, Olga Tañón and Carlos Ponce, Ivy Queen, Tito “El Bambino” and the band Aventura.
Conservatives have been quick to label this an insult, and proof of increasing cultural balkanization.
“I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English,” President Bush said. ”And they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.”
Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles’s first Latino mayor since 1872, told CNN he was offended “because, for me, the national anthem is something that deserves to be respected. Without a doubt, the vast majority of the United States also took offense on that. Our national anthem must be sung in English, the Spanish and Mexican anthems in Spanish, the French one in French, so that’s why I took offense.”
The debate over whether immigrants should be required to learn English is an old one, but this latest iteration is even more inflammatory because it lies at the intersection of patriotism and multiculturalism.
One can make a reasonable argument that people should learn English so that they have access to more opportunities and can more fully participate in our democracy. But too often, insisting that new arrivals learn English is an easy cover for immigrant bashers.
Demanding that the national anthem only be sung in English is short sighted. After all, don’t we want other cultures to understand ours?
Consider a recent, similar dispute over the Pledge of Allegiance. Thousands of Spanish speakers stood on Washington’s National Mall and recited the pledge from phonetic fliers at a recent immigrants’ rights march. While the phonetic pledge was touching, and a little odd – “Ai pledch aliyens to di fleg/Of d Yunaited Esteits of America,” it read – its readers likely had no idea what it meant. Isn’t it better for people to understand what they are pledging, or singing, particularly when it pertains to values fundamental to our nation?
The salad bowl and melting pot metaphors are unfortunate and simplistic devices for thinking about assimilation, though I am unable to come up with a better one. What I do know is that the different fragments of culture that immigrants bring to our country enrich it, and, combined, they are what make us uniquely American.
As Ralph E. Shaffer and Walter P. Coombs, professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona point out, performing the national anthem in a foreign language is nothing new. German and Latin translations appeared in the 1860s, followed by a Yiddish version, they note. The U.S. Bureau of Education printed it in Spanish in 1919. And you can find it in Spanish on the current State Department website.
A few years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came under fire for being a member of the advisory board of U.S. English, a group that wants to make English the official language of the United States.
Gabriela Lemus, who was then director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told me then that Schwarzenegger’s membership on the board of U.S. English “does not bode well for Hispanics. So many of us support bilingualism and bilingual education and maintaining our culture, and he’s essentially saying it’s not valid by being part of this board that has got this whole anti-immigrant, underlying racist mentality,” Lemus said.
LULAC, the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights group, called on Schwarzenegger to resign from the board. He never did; his name is still listed on the group’s Web site, along with fellow board members Charlton Heston and Alex Trebek.
Insisting that people learn English has always been a political issue, but this time it seems particularly hypocritical, too. President Bush, who has often spoken Spanish to appeal to Latino voters, was the first president to give his weekly radio address in Spanish. (The Spanish wire service Agencia EFE once said he spoke the language poorly, ”but with great confidence,” the New York Times reported.) Villaraigosa has also spoken Spanish on the campaign trail, and was successfully propelled to office last year by his ability to patch together a winning coalition of black, white and Latino voters.
More troubling than arguments over the national anthem, though, is an attempt by a group of House Republicans to do away with bilingual ballots and translation assistance at the polls. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the legislators are asking colleagues to let the act’s language assistance provisions expire.
I don’t know what my Cantonese-speaking grandmother would have made of this attempt to deprive citizens of their right to vote simply because they have not mastered English.
I do know, however, that she raised a son – my dad – who believes passionately in serving his country. He devoted his entire career to public service, beginning as the first Asian American in the Lane County, Ore. sheriff’s department, then going on to work for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Ten years ago, he retired from his job as an agent at the U.S. Department of Defense. Now, he works part time training local law enforcement recruits at a South Bay police academy. Not bad for the son of a Chinese immigrant who never learned to speak English.