Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Day Without Immigrants

Guest Blogger

Cristina Rodriguez

Across the country yesterday, unauthorized immigrants and their allies held a boycott. Early estimates suggest that nearly one million people stayed home from work and school. The soundtrack for the event included Nuestro Himno, a Spanish-language version of the Star Spangled Banner accented by Latin American rhythms and instrumentation. This adaptation of a cherished symbol of American identity, intended by its producers at the New York-based Urban Box Office as an expression of patriotism, did not impress all observers. Yesterday, Lamar Alexander introduced a resolution in the Senate insisting that the anthem be sung in English. . When asked about the translated anthem during last Friday's Rose Garden press conference, President Bush declared: "I think 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."

President Bush has one thing right about what has been happening. Events like the boycott and the rallies held in April underscore immigrants' desire to be considered Americans. These events highlight the considerable roles immigrants (in particular unauthorized immigrants) play in the life of the nation-the fact that immigrants already belong to our communities. The demonstrations also constitute a loud call to Congress not to criminalize unauthorized status and to provide unauthorized immigrants with a path to American citizenship-a path to permanent belonging. The Spanish-language anthem, which will appear on an album exploring the immigrant experience called "Somos Americanos," symbolically expresses this desire to belong.

But the President was off-base in suggesting that singing the national anthem in Spanish diminishes its value, or undermines the anthem's celebration of American identity and unity. Behind the President's statement and the other condemnations of the Spanish-language translation lurks a fear of disloyalty, or the suspicion that translating the symbols of American citizenship implies their rejection. But in the debate over immigration reform, it is crucial to keep one very simple premise in mind. Acts like the translation of the national anthem into Spanish are not rejections of the English language or of American culture. Immigrants, probably without exception, hope to learn and expect their children to learn English. An either/or mentality with respect to language usage has a vise-like grip on American thinking, but learning and using English need not be synonymous with forgetting Spanish, or reserving its use only for private occasions.

In fact, the controversy over the anthem highlights how Spanish-language usage can help inculcate the values of citizenship. The idea of translating the anthem arose when organizers of a rally in the Washington area began distributing the English-language lyrics with phonetic pronunciation guides for demonstrators who did not speak English. For many marchers, then, the translated version transformed a meaningless repetition into an actual engagement with the content of the anthem. More broadly, the Spanish-language media and the use of culturally familiar modes of discourse have helped make the organizational feats of the last month possible, simply by spreading the word. The demonstrations have raised political consciousness, fostered community solidarity, given individuals agency, and inspired peaceful petitioning of government-all important values of citizenship. Ultimately, the demonstrators' chants of "sí, se puede" and the translation of the anthem give immigrants and their allies a personal and meaningful way of expressing their belonging in public life. Far from being a rejection of assimilation, these uses of the Spanish language convey the desire to be seen as full members of American society.

The fact that expressions of belonging sometimes take shape through the Spanish language-in some cases out of necessity, in other cases as the result of preference-underscores another simple point about the process of assimilation. It is a two-way phenomenon. It requires not only the adjustment of the immigrant population to the customs and traditions of the dominant society, but also the adjustment of the dominant society to the realities of the immigrant population. This dimension of assimilation is part of what makes immigration seem culturally destabilizing to some, but without openness to change and willingness to adapt to new circumstances, no society can remain economically and culturally vital.


There is an interesting article at this site:

Does anybody know if the Spanish language version was faithful to the original? I heard that Nuestro Himno contains some reference to current immigration policies, but don't speak Spanish myself.

Even if the words don't deviate, maybe there's a concern for ideas being lost in translation? More than anything else the concern seems to be about authenticity.

This "issue" has been overblown much like the "War on Christmas" and the "War on Easter" before it. The quicker we can learn to ignore the tangential noise, the quicker can address the task of constructing a comprehensive immigration policy fair to all parties.

However, I am concerned some individuals, such as Ms. Rodriguez in the instant case, cannot bring themselves to identify certain immigrants for what they are: illegal. Instead of calling those who have entered the country in violation of established immigration procedure “illegal”, pro-immigrant activists seek to misrepresent their actual status by using the hypernym “unauthorized”. Semantic shell games of this sort undermine credibility and, in this instance, undercut an otherwise thought-provoking post.

mp: "Does anybody know if the Spanish language version was faithful to the original?"

If you ask whether the Spanish-language lyrics say actually the same as the English-language ones, the answer is that they don't. However, it can be considered "faithful" in the sense that both versions defend the idea of fight for freedom, and pay tribute to the U.S. flag (although the Spanish version refers to it as "sacred flag", which I found to be an inappropriate religious claim).

zarevitz: thanks for the clarification

chase: The unauthorized/illegal distinction is definitely a subtle way of shaping the terms of debate, but I don't think it's pure semantics either. To me, at least, the term "illegal" doesn't acknowledge the degree to which these immigrants are de facto members of the national community. The term "unauthorized" stresses that the only obstacle to complete integration is authorization--in an economic and cultural sense these immigrants are quite deeply entrenched.

Well, duh, MP: And if a bank robber is "authorized" to make the withdrawl, he's not a bank robber. Many things that are crimes would be legal if you actually secured permission before you did them, but that doesn't make the people who do them without that permission "unauthorized".

It makes them criminals.

I will say this, though: At least "unauthorized" sort of acknowleges that there's a problem. "Undocumented" makes it sound like they got their wallets lifted. And the unadorned "immigrant" represents an effort to make opponents of illegal immigration look like they're opposed to ALL immigration.

So, yes, there are graduations between the various weasel-words. But the correct terminology, until the law is changed, is "illegal".


a bank robber is illegal because stealing money is a crime. The law aside, there are no overarching reasons why he should be able to possess the money. But a bank robber's claim to other people's money is fundamentally different from the claim being made by these immigrants.

I'm not denying that an immigrant who is here without authorization is here illegally. What I am saying is that gaining membership in a national community involves more than just filing the right paperwork. There are legal/formalistic requirements (ex: getting a visa), as well as substantive/symbolic requirements as well (ex: swearing allegiance to the United States, committing yourself to a future here, etc).

So yes, "illegal" is certainly correct. That said, however, I don't think it gives due attention to the range of issues that this controversy is about.

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