Los Estatdos Unidos, the Beautiful

I’ve always loved Coca Cola.  I like it even more after seeing their commercial featuring women of all colors singing America the Beautiful in different languages.   Who could fail to be inspired by this message of unity? 

Plenty of people, judging by the number of tweets that shared one basic message:  Speak English. 

Why is this?  Fifty years ago, 8% of Americans were bilingual.  They spoke Czechoslovakian, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Polish, German, and Swedish, to name a few.   Many of the young GI’s who fought in World War II were fluent in other languages because their parents had immigrated to this country.    

In 1960, 1 in 20 Americans was foreign born.  Today, that number is 1 in 8.  It seems to me that we should be more inclined than ever to see our signs in another language, to hear our songs sung in another tongue.  

Unless you are an American Indian, you or your ancestors came to the United States from some place else, very likely not an English-speaking country.  So when did we become so intolerant of hearing a foreign language here in America? 

In the 1960’s, 75% of foreign-born Americans were born in Europe. In other words, they looked like us.  Today, 81% are from Latin American (53%) or Asia (28%). In other words, we don’t think of them as white.  Do I hear the pitter patter of racism? 

I know it’s just a commercial by a large multinational conglomerate, but it made me think.  It made me think that I like being a citizen of a country that people from around the globe still flock to, hoping for a chance at The Big Three: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So yeah.  I love hearing our national songs sung by people in other languages.  

Last week, Kevin and I started working with two Mexican immigrants who are working to improve their English.  It was hard work for us, because we know so very little Spanish.  And while I say I’d like to change that, I’ve been very casual about it.  Listening to CD’s in the car for a while, until I grew tired of it, reading a Spanish language book from time to time.  Did I say hard work for us?  Here is what Roberto and Hector (not their real names) go through to improve their language skills:  They work in the orchards and greenhouses of their employers six, sometime seven days a week, often ten hours a day.  Then they come home to eat supper with their young families, and then they make their way to a local community center where they sit with us for two hours in a cold room, reading, writing, and talking, talking, always talking.  They’re friendly and good-natured, hardworking and earnest.  They’re just the kind of people that we want in our community and our lives.

Did I mention they speak English? In fact, Hector is an American citizen.  Which means that, among other things, he knows more about our system of government, can name more elected officials and cabinet members, than most native-born citizens.  If Hector and Roberto want to sing the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish, I’m all for it.

The recent “Speak English” rants made me think of a song from a much older Coca-Cola commercial:  “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” 

I’d like to do that. In harmony.  Not necessarily in English.

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