Waving the Star-Spanglish Banner

By Ariel Dorfman
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The airing last week on Hispanic radio stations of "Nuestro Himno," a Spanish-language adaptation of the American national anthem, has been greeted with an unprecedented and, indeed, astonishing wave of denunciations all over the United States.

Talk show hosts and academics have indignantly called this loving rendition by a group of Latino artists a desecration of a national symbol. Senators -- both the conservative Lamar Alexander and the liberal Edward M. Kennedy -- have declared that "The Star-Spangled Banner" should be sung exclusively in English. And they have been joined by President Bush, who has used the occasion to remind the citizenry that "one of the important things here is, when we debate this issue, that we not lose our national soul."

The national soul? In danger of being lost? Because Haitian American singer Wyclef Jean and Cuban American rapper Pitbull are crooning " a la luz de la aurora" instead of "by the dawn's early light"? Would such an outcry have erupted over a Navajo version of the national anthem? Or if the words had been rendered into Basque or Farsi or Inuit? Would anybody have cared if some nostalgic band had decided to recover and record the legendary 1860s translations of the song into Yiddish or Latin?

Of course not.

There's a reason for the current uproar. The streets of America are not filled with marching Eskimos or Basque patriots, and certainly not with scholars ardently shouting against discrimination in the lost language of Virgil. What resonated in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Chicago and New York, as recently as last Monday were the voices of hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States be granted amnesty. And the language in which they were chanting was the same sacrilegious Spanish of "Nuestro Himno."

No wonder the Spanish version of the national anthem caused such alarm: It was a reminder that, along with their swarthy and laboring bodies, those immigrants had smuggled into El Norte the extremely vivacious language of Miguel de Cervantes and Octavio Paz. They weren't coming here merely to work, bake bread, lay bricks, change diapers, wash dishes, pick strawberries, work, work, work; Dios mío , they might decide to speak! And not necessarily in English.

Although English is what most immigrant parents have always wanted for their children, what distinguishes these recent arrivals from earlier huddled masses is that they're not prepared to abandon la lengua materna, the mother tongue. Spanish is not going to fade away like Norwegian or Italian or German did during previous assimilative waves. It is not only whispered by the largest minority group in the United States, but is also being spoken and written and dreamed, right now, at this very moment, by hundreds of millions of men and women in the immense neighboring Latino South. Spanish is a language that has come to stay.

I believe this is why "Nuestro Himno" has been received with such trepidation. By infiltrating one of the safest symbols of U.S. national identity with Spanish syllables, this version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has crossed a line. It has inadvertently announced something many Americans have dreaded for years: that their country is on its way to becoming a bilingual nation.

If I'm right about this, and America will sometime be articulating its identity in two languages, then the question looms: How will the citizens of the United States react to this monumental challenge?

One possibility, of course, is a nativist backlash, with more vigilante Minutemen swilling beer in the Arizona sun, more calls for deporting all illegal workers, more demands that an impenetrable wall be built against the foreign hordes, more attempts to dismantle bilingual education in U.S. schools.

But others may tell themselves that the United States has been built on diversity and tolerance and that, at a time when the national soul is indeed being tested, at a time when the democratic ideals at the heart of American identity are truly in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of false security, our better angels should welcome the wonders of Spanish to the struggle and the debate.

For those who are afraid and claim it can't be done and believe that the United States can only endure if it is monolingual, there's a simple answer. It comes in words that have been heard on the streets of America in recent days, sung and imagined by men and women who crossed deserts and risked everything to live the American dream. In words that the nation's founders and pioneers might have embraced, and that have now become part of the national vocabulary:

Sí, se puede.

Yes, it can be done.

adorfman@duke.edu

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean American playwright, is a professor of literature at Duke University.

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