The moment the Coca Cola ad aired praising this nation for its virtues and its people, I couldn’t help but to feel a sense of pride and patriotism. Sadly, I was sure that there would be some sort of backlash or outrage from those usual fringes of society, that while not representative of our character, nowadays get much more recognition then before. What I didn’t expect was for individuals whom I deem to be reasonable to criticize the ad, demanding that America the beautiful be only sung in English. It is somewhat shocking to see these attacks coming from individuals that have influence in our national affairs, especially when they say this is our being on a “road to perdition” (admittedly, Allen West’s statement was not exactly surprising).
Not everyone who criticized the ad is a bigot or racist, but they have taken an indefensible position that stands at odds with everything that this nation was founded upon. How can it be that the nation conceived in liberty attacks those who sing it praises in languages that reflect their own cultural heritage? Since when is there an established definition of what it means to be an American, that excludes expressing your culture? It simply makes no sense for our framers to have intended to have a homogeneous nation that speaks one language, both because it would have undermined the very sense of their arguments in founding the country, and because it would have simply not reflected the reality, both then and now. For a sampling: our eighth president’s first language, the first one to be born an American citizen, was dutch, and in 1795 Congress even considered printing all laws in English and German.
You see, those who say the ad is unpatriotic, or un-American are not only wrong, but they’re eroding the basis of what makes us great. The contrived notion that English is what defines us belittles everything that we are, and that we aspire to be.
Our language does not define our character any more than it does for the United Kingdom. Yes it is an integral part of the American experience, and all living here ought to embrace it, but that does not mean that we get to dictate the terms of our culture. Doing so is antithetical to what our founders established, and to our reality.
We are seeing a narrative involving the false dichotomy that we either only speak English, or we’re not American, and that is a position that we cannot accept. There is a reason the US has never enacted national official languages. The framers were wise beyond their time in undertaking the bold experiment that this country is, for by following the counter intuitive notion that in our differences lie our strengths, they established a model of tolerance, acceptance and prosperity.
We cannot now become the insecure nation that fears diversity within its borders, that cowers at the thought that there isn’t a single type of American.
The issue at hand isn’t one of political correctness, but of innately American principles. The idea that wherever you come from, you can establish yourself here, integrate into society yet retain your heritage is, as it was in the beginning, a bold and challenging one, that we struggle with to this day. Yet, it still defines what this country stands for, what it represents.
America is so much more than a language, it is people, an idea, an experiment that challenges conventional wisdom every day. We ought not to belittle it reducing it to merely a language that isn’t even exclusive to us, nor that was conceived by us. We should embrace the English language, be proud of its role in our history and treasure it for its unifying nature, but we ought not give it a role it was never meant to have. English is inherently part of who we are, but it does not determine what being an American is all about.
I grew up challenging the notion that learning and embracing English made me less of a Puerto Rican. It is an absurd idea, as is the idea that speaking Spanish makes me less of an American. Our culture isn’t this monolithic concept unable to accept and embrace diversity. On the contrary, it is a culture of a cultures, where the most fundamental shared trait is that we accept and celebrate the idea of having different backgrounds, traditions and heritage. Believing otherwise is misconstruing the true meaning of the nation, ignoring our history and failing to uphold that which must be the most sacred of ideals, our freedom.
It would be inconceivable to label Hawaiians as not being American for speaking their language, as it is for the many different groups, cultures and ethnicities that make our people. So let’s have this debate, but aware of who we are, and how we got here.
We can do better. We must.