Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nosotros, el Pueblo de los Estados Unidos

If Marines named Gonzalez, Hernandez or Torres, Garcia, Gomez, or Rios die in combat calling for their mamacitas, do their deaths not count?

Do they have to be killed in English to be American heroes?

Last week, the Mannions went to hear the writer Joseph Bruchac talk about his novel Code Talker. Bruchac, who writes books primarily for children and young adults, is American Indian and his books have Native American subjects and themes. Code Talker is, as you can guess, about the Navajos who served in US Marines as regular troops and code talkers in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, particularly the Marines.

Bruchac is Abanaki, but he knows how to speak some Navajo. He's very apologetic about it though. Navajo is a highly tonal language. If you don't get the inflections just right you're not only not saying what you mean, you're very likely speaking gibberish. This is one of the reasons it was so useful as the basis for a military code. At one point, Bruchac felt he had to give the audience some sense of what Navajo sounds like so, sheepishly and after kiddingly expressing his relief that there were probably no Navajos in the room, because they'd split their sides laughing at his mispronunciations, he sang a song in Navajo.

I can't reproduce the words here, unfortunately, but you'd have recognized it immediately. I'll give you the first couple of lines in English:

From the halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli...

The audience cheered. There were a handful of World War II vets in the crowd, including a former Marine not far from us who sang right along under his breath.

Nobody in their right mind would argue that the Code Talkers weren't being good Marines when they sang the Corps hymn in Navajo.

It's not the words. It's the spirit. And the actions the spirit inspires.

And the same should go for singing the Star Spangled Banner. Nobody in their right minds should argue that any American who sings it in French or German or Russian or Magyar, Hindi, Lapp, Navajo, Abanaki, Inuit, Cherokee, Lakota, or Dutch is not being a real American or unAmerican.

The Indians, of course, might be singing it as our friends. Depends on where they live.

Spanish, apparently, is another story.

Sing it in Spanish and the President of the United States himself will come along to question your patriotism.

Descendents of the Anglo-Saxons all over the world have been notoriously incompetent at picking up languages other than English and just as notoriously arrogant about demanding that "furreners" make up for their incompetence by learning how to speak English.

But the American aversion to even hearing a foreign language spoken has always struck me as bizarre to the point of a pathology. After all, outside of a few inbred pockets in the South and some Northeastern country clubs, there are very few Americans who aren't mutts. And most of us, even those descended from Angles, Saxons, Celts, and Picts, have an ancestor or two or three or a hundred who lived in the United States and yet did not speak English.

Mannion is a grand old Irish name and so is the name Mannion's been standing in for. But LeMay is a grand old French name, and Madsen a grand old Danish one. My grandmother spoke French growing up in Troy, New York, and my great-grandmother's family spoke Danish in Troy, New York.

There's a real possibility that some of the Murrays, Kavanaghs, Fitzgeralds, and O'Neills in my famiy tree who came here in the early part of the 19th Century spoke Gaellic.

Yes, they all learned English, or their children did...eventually. But they didn't do it without help. They didn't become Americans without help either. Some of that help came in the form of newspapers written in the language of the old countries---Yiddish, German, Polish, Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish language newspapers flourished here; some still do---and signs in shop windows and cops on the beat who bothered to learn the language of the people in the neighborhoods they'd sworn to serve and protect.

There were areas in the country settled by Germans where German was the main language of daily conversation and business a hundred years after the first settlers moved in. There were similar enclaves of Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns in the upper Midwest. And of course cities were checkboarded with neighborhoods where the music of the streets was Italian and Yiddish and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and forms of English that plenty of White Anglo Saxon types didn't regard as properly "American."

Now, the mark of an ignoramous is that he hates having his ignorance shown up. Hearing someone speak a language the ignoramous doesn't understand infuriates him as much as hearing someone recite poetry or do long division.

Add to this anger that of the Right Wing nativists to whom it has always been important to feel that they own the country and I guess you've gone a ways towards explaining the racist rantings of people who very likely are descended from "furreners," whose great-grandparents had to hear ignoramouses and racists tell them they weren't real Americans and if they couldn't learn how to be real Americans they should go back where they came from.

And toward explaining why they can't see the irony in their objections to a Spanish language version of the Star Spangled Banner.

A great American President would explain it to them. A great American President would have gone out of the way to find people he could join in singing the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish.

But it takes the very opposite of a great American President to go out of his way to encourage the ignoramouses and the racists.

President Bush is a product of one of those inbred enclaves of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, but he has nieces and nephews whose ancestors spoke Spanish.

You'd think he'd have the common decency not to insult their heritage, if he can't bring himself to stand up to the know-nothings and racists.

You'd think so, if you hadn't been paying attention to the Republican Party for the last 30 years.

Simply put, the Republicans would like to have the Hispanic vote, they think they're owed it, just as they think they're owed the black vote too, and they're highly resentful that black people just don't see things their way.

But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty they'd rather have the racists' votes.

They'd rather encourage more white folk and some black folk to vote against the brown folk.

The President talks about the Star Spangled Banner as if its some sort of sacred text, a pagan text, at that, as it must be said in the right language for the magic work. Christian texts and prayers work in all languages. You can get into heaven no matter how you say the word God, but Patiotism will only take root if the incantation is done in English.

For some people the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't count either if it's not said in English.

One parent objecting to a Spanish translation of the Pledge being recited at his kids' school said, "I take the pledge very seriously. I don't say it's sacred. But the words are very special."

As I was saying, one of the ways to help people learn to become Americans is by translating America for them. Once upon a time, I'm sure, school children said the Pledge of Allegiance in Yiddish and Italian and German and Polish and Greek. Somewhere they still do. They say in Russian and Chinese and Vietnamese and Hindi and, God forbid, Persian and Arabic.

Here it is in German:

Ich gelobe Treue auf die Fahne der Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika, auf die Republik, die eine Nation unter Gott ist, vereinigt durch Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit fur alle.

In French:

J´engage ma fidelité au drapeau des États-Unis d´Amérique et à la République qu'il répresente, une nation sous Dieu, indivisible, avec liberté et justice pour tous.

And in Spanish:

Yo prometo lealtad a la bandera
de los estados Unidos de America,
y a la Republica que representa,
una Nacion bajo Dios,
con libertad y justicia para todos.

By the way, I got those translations of the State of Washington's Secretary of State's webpage. Out there, America exists in any language and liberty and justice are para todos.

The President's dismissal of the Spanish version of the National Anthem made Shakespeare's Sister nail-spitting mad.

Brad DeLong has found a Yiddish version of The Star Spangled Banner. Presumably Bush doesn't think it counts either.

A Spanish translation of the Constitution of the United States is available online.


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