During the Super Bowl the most offensive commercial this year appears to come, not from Go Daddy, but from Coca-Cola. The commercial can be accessed here. What was so offensive? The song “America the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages. Critics immediately took to social media to voice their anger over the “unpatriotic” display. Some argued that an American song should never be sung in any other language than English. Others said that the commercial stood against assimilation of immigrants into the broader American culture. Some simply said, “Speak English.”
Speak English. Two words that summarize the thoughts of so many. Yet are they well informed? Are people who speak in any other language than English unpatriotic? Does assimilation require the complete cession of speaking non-English languages in public?
I’ll save my main discussion of language-learning and adoption of culture for another blog post. For now, I will save my comments for one language featured in the Coke commercial that should be beyond criticism by “apple pie” Americans: Keres.
Is it right to be offended at someone singing “America the Beautiful” in Keres? This is the language of some Native American Pueblo peoples in New Mexico, a culture and language that predate English settlement, and was featured in the Coca-Cola commercial. Is it fair to criticize Keres-speakers for holding on to their language and culture, calling them “un-American,” when they are in danger of losing their culture and language forever.
Government-sponsored “assimilation” programs of the early 20th century sometimes separated Native American children from their parents, required them to adopt American hairstyles and dress, educated them in English, and punished students who used their native language in public. And this was just for Native American tribes who had been here long before the concept of “America” was ever born. George Clooney’s character from the new movie The Monuments Men laments the Nazis plans to destroy priceless works of art and culture in their retreat back to Germany in WWII. He says, “If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed.”
Whereas we should take pride in the Allies who sought to preserve culture and history from destruction by the Nazis, we should be ashamed that our own country had a similar policy towards Native Americans in their own country at the same time. How much does one need to “assimilate” before all prior cultural identity is gone? We may debate the rest of the commercial and the assimilation or lack thereof of other people groups featured in the commercial, but can we really be up in arms over the inclusion of a Native American language singing “America the Beautiful,” a land her people called their own long before European settlers came and took it from them?