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An Anthem's Discordant Notes

Pitbull, among the artists on the song.
Pitbull, among the artists on the song. (By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)

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Juan Carlos Ruiz, the general coordinator of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said there's not a contradiction. The pledge was printed phonetically for Spanish speakers, and many reciting the sounds may not have understood the meaning. Putting the anthem in Spanish is a way to relay the meaning to people who haven't learned English yet, Ruiz said.

"It's part of the process to learn English," not a rejection of English, he said.

While critics sketch a nightmare scenario of a Canada-like land with an anthem sung in two languages, immigrant rights advocates say they agree learning English is essential. Studies of immigrant families suggest the process is inevitable: Eighty-two percent to 90 percent of the children of immigrants prefer English.

"The first step to understanding something is to understand it in the language you understand, and then you can understand it in another language," said Leo Chavez, director of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California at Irvine. "What this song represents at this moment is a communal shout, that the dream of America, which is represented by the song, is their dream, too."

Since its origins as the melody to an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven," circa 1780, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has had a long, strange trip. Key wrote the poem after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. It became the national anthem in 1931.

At least 389 versions have been recorded, according to Allmusic.com, a quick reference used by musicologists to get a sense of what's on the market. Now that Hendrix's "Banner" has mellowed into classic rock, it's hard to imagine that once some considered it disrespectful. The other recordings embrace a vast musical universe: from Duke Ellington to Dolly Parton to Tiny Tim. But musicologists cannot name another foreign-language version.

"America is a pluralistic society, but the anthem is a way that we can express our unity. If that's done in a different language, that doesn't seem to me personally to be a bad thing," said Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, which is leading a National Anthem Project to highlight the song and the school bands that play it in every style, from mariachi to steel drum.

"I assume the intent is one of making a statement about 'we are a part of this nation,' and those are wonderful sentiments and a noble intent," said Dan Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Benigno "Benny" Layton wonders. He's the leader of Los Hermanos Layton, a band of conjunto- and Tejano-style musicians in Elsa, Tex., 22 miles from Mexico. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he recorded a traditional conjunto version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was instrumental.

"I'm a second-generation American," Layton said. "I love my country, and I love my [Mexican musical] heritage, and I try to keep it alive. But some things are sacred that you don't do. And translating the national anthem is one of them."

Staff writer Richard Harrington contributed to this report.


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