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By the Tongue

Once again, President Bush has shown that he's more concerned with symbols than substance, this time in regards to "Nuestro Himno," a recent Spanish translation of the national anthem. Bush opined that "people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English," as if the sentiments expressed in the national anthem are less important than the language in which those ideas are expressed. As usual, Bush is focused on the exact opposite of what he ought to be worried about, not on upholding the constitution, but on keeping people from burning the flag, not on uniting a diverse population, but on maintaining a lockstep cultural hegemony.

While I certainly agree that it's to everyone's benefit for immigrants to learn English, I can't imagine how it hurts anyone for those who speak other languages to celebrate this country in their native tongues (regardless of whether they could also sing the song in English).  Encouraging and helping immigrants to learn English shouldn't be confused with discouraging them from using other languages as well.  What's next?  Like Ma Ferguson, will Bush argue, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas" (and pre- sumably the rest of the United States)?

Discussing "Nuestro Himno," Bush solemnly declared, "One of the important things here is that we not lose our national soul."  Now that's a statement I can get behind, but I suspect that Bush wasn't referring to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," but to the misguided notion that if America is a melting pot, it's one in which immigrants' original traditions and languages are washed away, after which they ought to adopt a sort of watered-down WASP culture: benighted immigrants may arrive on our shores speaking (laughable) foreign tongues and wearing (quaint) native costumes, but they will be assimilated, and, through the immigration process, turned into "real," English- speaking, blue-jean-wearing Americans.

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By this standard, the ones who are the truest Americans are those who most closely match the East Coast preppy stereotype, and anyone who's too attached to some other cultural heritage is suspect.  The longer your family has been here, the better (unless your family was here prior to 1620).  It's permissible to have some distant ancestors who were Native Americans (particularly if there's a romantic story attached to them), but not to have family members living on a reservation.  It's fine to have a German or Scottish relative in the lower branches of the family tree, but not to have parents who spoke anything but English.  On March 17th or May 5th, you can drink green beer or have a Cerveza, but every other day of the year, you should forget all that ethnic heritage stuff.

This isn't a new issue; Benjamin Franklin was deeply concerned by the prevalence of German-language schools, newspapers and businesses in Pennsylvania and the German immigrants' refusal to abandon their native tongue.  Every subsequent wave of immigrants has found comfort in enclaves of their compatriots, and every new group of immigrants has experienced prejudice and discrimination by those whose families have been here a little longer.  English may have become the predominant language in this country, but there has never been a time when a significant portion of the population didn't speak another language, either in addition to, or instead of, English.  The lack of consensus on this issue, even in the earliest days of our country, belies the notion that American equals English speaking.  The underpinnings of our country are multicultural, and any attempt to deny that is intellectually dishonest.  Other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants or children of immigrants, and each wave of newcomers has shaped and changed the culture of the United States.

In the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, the characters sing "There's another national anthem, folks,/For those who never win,/For the suckers, for the pikers,/For the ones who might have been."  The play suggests that those who are excluded from the national dialogue, who are literally or figuratively disenfranchised and treated as second-class citizens, are driven to extreme acts of desperation, in order to call attention to themselves and their cause (as an aside, I feel compelled to assure my readers that Stephen Sondheim does not endorse assassination as a political strategy and neither do I).  Bush, in his casual dismissal of Spanish-speaking Americans is telling them that they aren't as good, as valuable, as much a part of this country as those of us who share his ethnic background and culture, and he's giving others permission to do the same.  Not only is that a profound betrayal of our "national soul," I fear it's also an invitation to disaster.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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