If you were glued to the TV last night like I was, you probably watched the Coke commercial featuring people from different backgrounds singing “America the Beautiful” in their respective languages. I personally didn’t think much of it, but it didn’t surprise me to wake up to the web having blown off at Coke’s attempt to convey a simple message. There were all sorts of ugly, dissenting messages out there, but at the crux was the assertion that such an “American” song shouldn’t have been uttered in anything but English. The voice reprimanding the critiques of this ad was equally loud. But, I think there’s something that people on both sides of the fence should think about.
I live in the South. The fact that MANY Arkansans are very conservative shouldn’t be a secret to anyone. When you live in a conservative state, it’s natural to see abundant tension between those who want to preserve things the way they were and those who, by virtue of their presence, challenge that desire. The racial/political tension in Arkansas is more apparent now than at any point in its recent past because of its quickly changing demographics. It’s not very well-known outside Arkansas, but Arkansas has one of the fastest growing Latino population in the US (especially Northwest Arkansas -> “NWA”) primarily driven by employment opportunities provided by the poultry business (Tyson Foods, George’s Chicken, Peterson Farms, etc). If you don’t believe me, visit Walmart in the City of Rogers and you’ll be surprised to walk into the smell of sweet Pollo Campero. Campero (Guatemalan equivalent of KFC) has been present in the US for some time now, but other than Northwest Arkansas, they’re all located in larger cities with heavy Latino population. There are some who don’t mind the change, but I’d argue there are plenty who resent how NWA has transformed in recent years (the upsurge in Latino population is nationwide, whether by migration or birth, but I use NWA as an example because it’s where I live now and the rise in immigrant population has been more dramatic here).
The Angry “American”
So why are so many people upset at the fact that America the Beautiful was sung in different languages, or at the fact that the national anthem was sung by a US born Mexican-American boy from San Antonio, Texas? I think it has to do with many factors. Among them, I think the following are worth talking about: 1) assumptions as to the realities of the immigrant and 2) what we think “American” means.
1.a. “Why don’t they learn English?” Todd Starnes of Fox News, for one, argues that Coke’s ad sent the message that “America is beautiful because immigrants don’t learn English”. Let’s start with that. Out of the younger immigrant population, when was the last time you met someone who couldn’t speak fluent English? Probably never, or only in rare occasions. That’s because many young immigrants have had a MEANINGFUL OPPORTUNITY to learn the English language. They go to school and they interact with other English-speakers. Their parents or grandparents, on the other hand, haven’t had that opportunity. Most of them came here to give themselves and their children an opportunity to change the shitty fate they were stuck with in their home countries. For the most part, people are stuck with the language spoken to them since birth, and that’s as natural as one’s skin color. Having said that, telling a Latino man he can’t be “American” just because he can’t speak English is as dumb as saying an Indian man cannot be “American” because he is brown. To suggest that immigrants choose to not learn English (or refuse to pick up other cultural nuances) is simply absurd and down-right insulting.
1.b. “Then why the fuck do they come to America?” Because they were born in an economic shit-hole. I’m not saying that Mexico, or other countries our immigrants hail from, are bad or ugly places. In fact, if you’ve never been to Mexico (think Puebla or Guanajuato, not Cozumel), Guatemala or even Russia, it’s quite beautiful out there. I’m simply saying that most immigrants decide to leave behind everything they know and move to the US because this is where the opportunity is. It’s a rational choice that any reasonable person would make. They didn’t choose to be born in a place with no jobs, no infrastructure and no working government, similar to how Todd Starnes didn’t choose to be born in the wealthiest country in the world. It was by pure luck of the draw that a bigot like Starnes was born in the US. If he or any other immigrant-hater would’ve been born on the other side of the border, you can bet your ass they would’ve wanted to come over. It’d be the easiest decision he’ll ever make.
2.a. “That’s not American.” Well, then tell me what “American” means. Is it written in the laws of this country who an “American” is? US immigration law provides for who a “Citizen” is, but that’s different from who an “American” is. This distinction matters because those who criticized Coke’s ad wouldn’t have cared whether the girl wearing the hijab has an American passport or an Iranian passport. Is it the language then? I don’t think it would’ve mattered if that girl spoke perfect English and zero Farsi. To them, it still wouldn’t have been “American”.
2.b. “How do we Define ‘American’?” One way to define who the “American” is to take a close look at our society, history, values and culture. For instance, one of the reasons I love this country is because of its strong sense of fairness and equality. I know this sounds ironic considering the realities such as the growing gap between the richest and the rest, or the hostility towards the LGBT community. However, if you’ve traveled/lived in the developing world, you’ll know that the US, relatively speaking, is much more fair and less arbitrary. For the most part, we cheer for the law-abiding, the hard-working, the tax-paying, and the self-reliant. We admonish the law-breaking, the free-riding, and the fraudulent. Countless immigrants I’ve met (whether documented or undocumented) in this country have mostly belonged to the former and not the latter category.
2.b.1. So, who are these hateful ignorant bigots to judge our immigrants as not being “American”, while they’re not equally vocal about the people who actually scam and free ride on our society? If my neighbor, who can barely say “hello”, works his ass off, pays taxes, contributes to his community and is proud of being a part of this society, then in my mind, he’s as American as the word American gets. My immigrant neighbor’s attitude, philosophy and way of life is MUCH MORE IN LINE with what made this country so successful than those of a lazy, white, free loader who speaks fluent English. To think that there are people who would rather claim the latter over the former, just because of their language or skin color, is appalling. In sum, the pursuit of happiness was an important objective for the founding fathers of this country. The wishes of today’s immigrants are not much different.
The Angry Immigrant
1. Likewise, I think it’s equally important for immigrants to be fair-minded. Many that are resistant to immigrants have never interacted with people that look different from them. Take a minute and think about why they’re being so “mean”. In my experience, even those who give me a hard time when they first meet me (because I’m probably the first Asian/Latino they’ve ever met who uses “y’all”), soon realize that I’m actually not very different from any of their peers. Being an immigrant gives one the opportunity to be an ambassador to their culture and heritage. Instead of being resistant to curiosities or hesitancy towards immigrants, combat the “angry” immigrant syndrome, and give others an opportunity to learn.
2. Even in the minds of many immigrants (Asians, Latinos, etc) black people are many times relegated to the bottom of an imaginary racial hierarchy. I’d argue that this may be due to the fact that many immigrants have not been exposed to and have not interacted with black people prior to their arrival to the US. It’s important to remember that immigrants CANNOT ask white people for equality and fair treatment without offering the same to all other races. Borrowing the words of Dr. King Jr, people shouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
What are your thoughts on the Coke commercial? What does it mean to be “American?”