Like a whole lot of other folks, I look forward to the Super Bowl as much for the commercials as for the football (at least when the Steelers aren't playing). Over the years, marketing firms have outdone themselves in coming up with one great commercial after another. Who can forget Mean Joe Greene tossing his jersey to that young boy in the Coke commercial? Or the Budweiser commercial where the Clydesdales kneel to the empty New York skyline after 9/11? Although the vast majority of the commercials tug on our heartstrings or our funny bones, this year we had a new emotion added to the mix: anger. I am, of course, speaking of the Coke commercial in which "America the Beautiful" is sung in multiple languages.
Shortly after the commercial aired, I began seeing a lot of Facebook comments and Twitter posts expressing a very wide range of emotions. The common theme in these comments was that this is "our" song, written to be sung in "our" language, and "our" language is English. Some of these comments came from folks that I know and respect, so I know they aren't made out of ignorance. Lots of times, people just haven't been presented with the other side of the issue at hand. Let me see if I can fix that.
As you can quickly guess from my last name, the roots of my family tree in America don't run particularly deep. My grandfather was a Spanish immigrant, and my grandmother was the daughter of German immigrants. In thinking about the various reactions to the Coke commercial, I spent a lot of time reflecting back to my childhood. I remember the days when my Mom and I would drive my grandmother to visit her friend, Josefa Maria Garcia, at her home in the south part of Moundsville, known as "Spanish Row." Family names there were Menendez, Rodriguez, Garcia, Alonzo, and many others. My grandmother would get out of the car, and she and Mrs. Garcia would begin shouting to one another. I never understood the conversation, because they were shouting in Spanish. It never once occurred to me that their failure to speak to each other in English was objectionable.
I also recalled images of my grandfather, who we all called "Papa". Papa came to the U.S. at the age of 13. He died in his early eighties, having retired from two different jobs after spending more than twenty-five years at each one. He first worked at the zinc smelter, which was located where the Moundsville Kroger store now stands. After retiring from there, he took a position as a corrections officer at the Penitentiary. He was there for over twenty-five years, retiring in the late 70s as a captain of the guards. He was proud of the fact that in twenty-five years, there had never been a successful escape during his shift. He had no delusions that his record was due to his incredible vigilance; instead, he was convinced the prisoners did not want to make him look bad. I remember asking him why he felt that way. In his broken English, he told me: "They respect you Papa. I treat like men, no like dogs. They respect."
I can still see Papa sitting in his chair in the living room, chewing on an unlit cigar. He loved to sing, and he sang often. Despite the fact that he lived in this country for over 70 years, Papa never got a good grasp on the English language. Accordingly, almost all of the songs he would sing were in Spanish. There was one and only one song I can remember hearing him attempt in English. It was "How Much is that Doggy in the Window". He butchered that one pretty badly as well, but he tried.
My grandparents raised two sons: my father and my uncle, Manuel. Both were taught the value of hard work and family. Both were instilled with a deep love for and pride in their country. Both put their lives on the line to fight for our country in World War II. Uncle Junior (Manuel) was a scout in the infantry who suffered a serious battlefield injury that affected him the rest of his life. My grandparents were fiercely proud of their sons' military service. I sometimes try to imagine what it must have been like for my grandparents to go to sleep, night after night, wondering if tomorrow was the day they would get the telegram that began "We regret to inform you." That is a hell they lived for years, yet never once did they complain or object. Photos of both sons in uniform occupied a place of honor in my grandparents' living room until the day they died. I can still see Papa walking over, looking at those photos, and smiling. He was SO proud that his sons had fought for HIS country.
When I mentioned my grandmother earlier, I neglected to note she spoke five languages: German, Hungarian, Spanish, Russian and English. She learned those languages growing up in "Spanish Rows" all over this area, living next door to immigrants from all over the world. These were the communities that built this country some now arrogantly call "ours," to the exclusion of anyone who doesn't speak English. Our country was built on the hard labor, heart, and determination of people who came here for a better life. The coal mines and the steel mills that produced the energy and materials which were the lifeblood of the Ohio Valley were run by men to whom English was a second language at best. Take a look at the roster of the men who died in the Benwood Mine Disaster in 1924. Now tell me how many of their funeral hymns you think were sung in English.
And so, I continue on to the argument that "America the Beautiful" is "our" song and should be sung only in "our" language. I am struck by the arrogance of such an edict, and I wonder why anyone would feel that way. Is it because some folks feel they are "more American" than others who have yet to (and may never) master English? To me, the argument is the ultimate example of placing form over substance. What should matter is the thought one seeks to express, not the language in which you express it. My Papa loved this country as much as anyone I have ever known, but he couldn't have sung the first verse of "America the Beautiful" in English if his life had depended on it. He and my grandmother were the embodiment of American values: opportunity, sacrifice, hard work, and honor. So, if he chooses to sing what has become our country's national hymn in his native language, wanting to avoid the embarrassment and appearance of disrespect that would certainly come with butchering the lyrics in his broken English, he is to be chastised? I don't think so. I choose instead to focus upon the love and respect he shows by learning the song to begin with.
My grandparents, and thousands just like them, BUILT this country. It was THEIR children who were sent off to fight the wars that secured our freedom. It was THEIR sweat and blood and tears that built our cities and our factories. The United States of America is THEIR country, every bit as much as it is yours and mine. People today who claim the right to define what is and is not sufficiently "American" have forgotten where they came from. There is an inscription on the Statue of Liberty that begins "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . ." I looked long and hard to find the part that says "but make sure they learn to speak English." I'm still looking. I hope I never find it.