Immigration, Language and Nuestra Himno

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 10 13:13:12 UTC 2006

Online at:

Immigration, Language and Nuestra Himno
By Emile Schepers

5-09-06, 9:31 am

Seizing any weapon with which to attack the growing movement for immigrant
workers rights, the Republican Party and the right wing have found a new
gripe: the recording of a Spanish-language version of the United States
national anthem. President Bush says that since English is the language of
the United States, the Star Spangled Banner should only be sung in
English. Republican Senators Alexander and Frist have introduced a
resolution in Congress asserting that the anthem should not be sung in any
"foreign" language. Many countries sing their national anthems in more
than one language. "Oh Canada" is sung in French and English. In the old
USSR, the two successive national anthems were sung in the multiple
languages of the country. In South Africa, the national anthem combines
the music of three different songs and words from four languages. It
starts out in Xhosa, moves to Tswana, then to Afrikaans, then to English.
The sky has not fallen.

In the United States, a Spanish version of the Star Spangled banner was
written under government commission in 1919. It has also been sung in
German, Yiddish, Finnish, French and OOdham, a Native American Language
spoken in Arizona. To complete the farce, it turns out that Bush himself
has sung the Star Spangled banner in Spanish in past campaign events,
though he denies it. So why is the Republican right once again creating an
uproar about nothing? An examination of how the language and nationality
issue plays out both in the United States and in other countries can give
us the answer.

Which Languages are "Foreign"?

Right-wing language chauvinists claim that English is "the language of the
United States" and that all others are "foreign." But in the United States
today, at least a few people still speak each of 170 ancient Native
American languages. Larger indigenous language communities include Hopi,
Western Apache, Oodham, Navajo, Zuni, Dakota and several others. Some
indigenous communities want to preserve their languages and have created
educational and cultural institutions to achieve this goal. Nowhere does
the desire to maintain the indigenous language mean that people do not
want to learn English. There are other non-English languages that have
been around here at least since colonial days. Besides Spanish,
established in New Mexico in the late 1500s, (before English was spoken at
Jamestown), French in Louisiana and Maine, and of Plattdeutsch (Low
German) in Pennsylvania have been used continuously since before

None of these are "foreign" languages; all have deep roots in the USA. But
for our right wing, these are all threats to English that should
disappear, because they clash with the rights organic concept of the
nation and national unity.

The Right Wing Take on Nationality and Language

For the far right, nationality is not just a matter of shared citizenship
or beliefs in democracy, justice, freedom and the rule of law. It requires
shared culture and language as well. It is guided by a mystical belief in
the uniqueness of "American" cultural characteristics. It is not just that
to be an American you should believe in democratic elections, since most
people in the world do. You must also adhere to the surface manifestations
of the self-evidently superior Anglo-Saxon culture and subscribe to all
the national myths. You must agree that the United States is unique,
special and superior. A good example of this mentality is the 2004 book
Who are We? The Challenges to Americas National Identity by Samuel P.
Huntington.  Huntington asserts that the core values of the founding
fathers, and therefore of the United States today, were those of white
Anglo Saxon Protestants only, and that groups which do not assimilate into
this core national culture can not contribute anything. He meant this to
apply to Latinos, but his thesis implies, without saying so, that African
Americans, Jews and Catholics also can not contribute anything except to
the extent that they abandon their own cultural characteristics.

Hundingtons thesis really sums up the whole right wing stance on
nationality. If you bring in elements from foreign cultures, even if they
do no demonstrable harm, and in fact reinforce democracy and freedom, you
are "contaminating" our country and "threatening" its unity and integrity.
"Foreign" language use is therefore a self-evident threat. There is a
strong element of racial and ethnic prejudice in this stance, which
changes over time. In the 1850s, the big "threat" was Irish immigration.
Anti-Irish agitation led to rioting fomented by the infamous "Know
Nothing" Party. Later in the 19th Century, Eastern and Central European
immigrants (especially Jews), as well as those from Asia, were the lurking
"inassimilable" menace to the organic unity of the United States.
Recently, however, there have not been riots about Irish symbols on St.
Patricks Day. With time, these things have become relatively inoffensive
in the eyes of the right wing, perhaps because of changing retrospective
attitudes toward white European immigrants. However, the sight of a
Mexican or Puerto Rican flag or the sound of Spanish drives the right

Nationality and Language in Spain and South Africa

The organic concept of nationality promoted by Huntington resembles very
closely that of the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain.
Before Franco gained power in 1939, Spain was a country with several
different linguistic and cultural traditions, including, besides
Castilian, Basque, Galician and Catalan-Valencian. Each of these national
groups wanted regional and linguistic autonomy. The Spanish left, to
varying degrees, was willing to accommodate this diversity, but to Franco
and the right it was anathema. In the right-wing view, to be a citizen of
Spain meant that you adhered not only to the Spanish laws, but also to
Castilian language and social customs, as well as traditional Catholicism.
When Franco took power, all concessions toward the language minorities
were reversed, and they were driven underground. After Franco died, the
demands of language minorities surfaced again, and use of these languages
is once more recognized.

The Franco attitude toward nation, culture and language is characteristic
of, but not unique to, fascist movements and regimes. There was supposed
always to be one nation, one leader, one culture, one language and, under
Catholic clerical fascism, one religion. The purpose was to serve the
interests of the big bourgeoisie by suckering the masses, including part
of the working class, into fighting communists, anarchists, socialists,
Jews or imaginary foreign enemies, instead of the class enemy.  In South
Africa, under the old apartheid regime, the philosophy of language and
nationality was similar, but was given a different twist because of the
hierarchical racial composition of the country. When South Africa got
practical independence from Britain in 1910, English was dominant and not
only indigenous African languages, but also Afrikaans, were discriminated
against. In the 1930s, the right-wing Afrikaner nationalist movement
sought to make Afrikaans the dominant language. However, as the movement
developed, its leadership concluded that it would not do to declare
perpetual war on English speaking whites, because uniting the whites
against the Blacks was a higher priority. So the formula became that to be
a "real (white) South African," you had to express white, European
Protestant culture, and you could do so in either Afrikaans or English.
Though some Anglo and Afrikaner whites never accepted it, this policy was
generally successful in uniting the white population against the
indigenous African population.

As a "divide and rule" tool, the leaders of the apartheid regime tried to
apply this "organic" idea of culture and language to the indigenous
African population as well. Apartheid ideologues exaggerated the cultural
and linguistic differences among the nine major African language
communities, and used these stereotypes to create the famous "Bantustans"
in which each group was supposed develop their little imaginary states in
accordance with what the regime said were the special national
characteristics of each. The educational philosophy that went along with
this charade was called "Bantu Education." In its original formulation, it
was intended to train the vast majority Black children only for menial
occupations, and a select few for subordinate administrative roles. When
this produced bitter protest, the government changed its rhetoric but not
its essential goal of using language for racial domination. Children were
educated in their indigenous language in primary grades, and then,
starting in 1976, were to be transitioned into education in Afrikaans in
the advanced grades.

The proposal to switch secondary education from English to Afrikaans led
directly to the Soweto uprising of 1976. Some people outside South Africa
thought the demand of the Soweto protesters was to have education in their
own indigenous languages. It was not; they wanted their schooling to be
mostly in English. Why? With the exception of a few expatriates, neither
Afrikaans nor any of the indigenous languages is used anywhere outside
South Africa and its immediate neighbors. All publishing and broadcasting
in Afrikaans and the indigenous languages was tightly controlled or
censored by the apartheid government. Progressive Afrikaans language
writers such as the novelist Andre Brink (A Dry White Season) and the poet
Breyten Breytenbach found that they could not publish in South Africa if
they were going to write things against the government. And if they tried
to publish outside of South Africa there would be no audience to read
their works in Afrikaans, because virtually all Afrikaans speakers lived
in South Africa.  Ironically, the same applied to literature written in
any of the African languages. Yet the South African government and its
institutions were perfectly willing to allow the publication of things in
all these languages that supported the government. There were newspapers
and other literature published in Xhosa, Zulu etc. during the apartheid
days, but they could only rarely and cautiously play an oppositional role.

But English is a world language with several hundred million native
speakers, and every conceivable kind of idea is open to people who read
it. So anti-apartheid activists saw education in English as one way of
equipping the younger generation with knowledge that allow them, not only
to survive, but to resist and eventually overcome the apartheid system of
race and class oppression. There is nothing intrinsically "wrong" with any
of these languages, including Afrikaans. You can say "workers of the
world, unite" in Afrikaans or Zulu as well as in German or English. But,
for political and not linguistic reasons, you could not say such a thing
in print in apartheid South Africa. So the liberation movement prioritized
literacy in English.

As soon as the apartheid regime fell from power, the new African National
Congress government moved to develop all the major national languages for
every kind of use. The right to use the language of ones choice was
entrenched in law. The Pan South African Language Board and the Commission
for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic
Communities, were set up to develop all 11 official languages and to
handle complaints of discrimination. The government moved to create news,
educational and entertainment programming on TV and radio in all eleven
major national languages. School curricula were revised to encourage South
Africans of all races to study African languages as well as English and
Afrikaans. This is a work in progress, with English still dominant, but
there is an active effort to end language discrimination. Apartheid
promoted bogus linguistic diversity for the purpose of dividing the
working class and ensuring both class and racial domination. The new South
African government promotes genuine linguistic diversity for the purpose
of eliminating discrimination by language, thus objectively helping to
unite the working class and fight class and racial domination.  Potential
conflict over language has been defused by a policy of equality and

South Africa is not the only example of linguistic diversity in the
context of national unity. Switzerland fully recognizes four official
languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch). In fact, the frequent
claims by the English Only crowd that allowing multiple languages leads to
national dissolution does not hold water. Where language is a focus of
conflict, you generally find that the argument is over discrimination
against a minority language. French Canadian discontent was caused by
longstanding Anglo-Canadian discrimination, not by the mere existence of
two languages. The worst conflicts in recent years, from Bosnia and Rwanda
to Iraq, have had nothing to do with language.

The English Only Movement

In this country, for a long time, multiple language use was not always
considered threatening. Long before "bilingual education," there were
schools, both public and parochial, in many parts of the United States
which used languages other than English for instruction. But as the United
States moved in an imperial direction at the end of the 19th Century, and
as class struggle intensified involving millions of immigrant industrial
workers, the idea that the English language was essential to loyalty began
to gain currency. Anti-immigrant zealots mixed up issues of language, race
and culture in their Jeremiads against people of "inferior stock" coming
in from Eastern and Southern Europe. The First World War led to the
suppression of German, and the Red Scare of the postwar period led to
attacks on anything foreign as subversive. The project of wiping out the
Native American languages advanced. Children were snatched off the
reservations and put in boarding schools in which they were physically
punished for speaking the languages of their home communities. Older
Native Americans often still speak of this traumatic experience with
bitterness. A bizarre effort to wipe out Spanish in Puerto Rico obviously
failed. However, the civil rights and Latino, Native American and other
anti-discrimination movements of the 1960s and 1970s opened up more space
for public use of languages other than English. Bilingual-bicultural
education began to be the norm for the teaching of language minority
children, from the inner city to the Indian Reservations.  The right-wing
reaction took fire at the beginning of the 1980s with the English Only
movement, initiated by former San Francisco State University president
S.I. Hayakawa and Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, and supported by
California millionaire Ron Unz. A campaign of attacks against second
language use and bilingual-bicultural education began to grow to dangerous
proportions. The English Only movement shares funders, activists and
support networks with the anti-immigrant movement. Although from time to
time some supposedly liberal environmentalists and defenders of "American
workers" get into the mix, the overall movement is heavily involved with
the political ultra right.

The strategy of the English-Only movement has been to tap national
chauvinist feelings of the Anglo-American population to energize the base,
while putting out false information to the wider public in order to defuse
potential defense of non-English language use. While most studies show
well-designed bilingual education programs comparing well with instruction
in English only, the Unz forces claimed the opposite. In state after
state, they succeeded in getting legislatures to declare the state to be
"English only." In some states they have done real damage to educational
programs and access of language minorities to public services. A crucial
goal of the English-only movement has been to put a stop to the printing
of ballots and other official election materials in languages other than
English (with the extra goal of removing non-English ballot requirements
from the Voting Rights Act). This goes hand in hand with efforts to force
voters to prove their US citizenship at the ballot box (instead of just
when they initially register to vote). The obvious intent is to suppress
the vote of language minorities, who tend to vote for the Democrats.
Thanks to the efforts of Unz and others, Propositions 227 in California
and 203 in Arizona, which mandated the dismantling of the states bilingual
education programs, were approved by voters in 1998 and 2000,
respectively. Unz and his allies subsequently put out false claims that
the end of bilingual education in California had brought sharp increases
in student achievement. These claims have been amply refuted by scholars
such as Kenji Hakuta and James Crawford (much valuable online material on
this issue is to be found on Crawfords website).

Strident anti-multilingualism campaigns resort to the big lie as scare
tactic, claiming that English is "under attack." In fact, the second
generation is always fluent in English, and this applies to Latino
immigrants as well as others. Language chauvinism has the same purposes as
the anti-immigrant campaign:  To create scapegoats for the
English-speaking masses so that their attention is deflected from the real
causes of our countrys many social problems. If you can convince people
that the schools are in trouble because of bilingual education, their
attention will be distracted from the fact that huge Republican tax cuts
for the rich as well as the wastefulness of an illegal war are starving
public education. As in Francos Spain, the mystical combination of nation
and language is supposed to cover up class contradictions, while the
suppression of minority languages ends up dividing, and not uniting, the
working class.

But language minorities are fighting back at all levels, from the struggle
to renew the Voting Rights Act without gutting its language provisions, to
the fight against English Only referenda and legislation at the state and
federal levels. This is an essential fight for the working class, just as
is the fight against racism and national chauvinism, because of its
relationship to class unity.

What Should be Fought for in Language Policy?

Progressive people should support language minorities in their struggle by
recognizing their right to use and develop their languages in public and
private. At the same time, we should be fighting for adequate public
funding for the teaching of both English and other languages to the whole
population. We should support the Voting Rights Act with its ballot
language stipulations and fight for dual language programs in the schools
that aim not just to substitute English for the childs home language, but
also to develop fluency in multiple languages for all children, including
those whose home language is English.

--Emile Schepers is a contributing writer for Political Affairs. Send your
letters to the editor to pa-letters at

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