“Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.” Theodore Roosevelt, 1919
One country, one flag, one language.
This is what Bob Kellar believes–and he’s not the only one.
Kellar, a California city councilman, supported the convictions of former President Theodore Roosevelt at an anti-illegal immigration rally held in Santa Clarita on Jan 16., saying that if believing Roosevelt’s words made him a racist, then he was “a proud racist.” Kellar later said that his comments were taken out of context and that he is not a racist.
Perhaps Kellar is not a racist in the conventional sense (he later joked that he was “not going to saddle up the horses at midnight”); one could argue about the rhetoric of the situation for days–but focusing on whether or not Bob Kellar is a racist clouds the real issue at hand: the growing divide among Americans regarding immigration in the United States.
In theory, the United States is the world’s melting pot–a powerful blend of cultures, customs, and values with citizens from all over the world. Near Ellis Island in New York, the Statue of Liberty stands tall as she proclaims to take “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”
Reality, however, is a different story. Immigration is “a-okay!” with many Americans–as long as the people immigrating are assimilating. “Speak like us, act like us, be like us–otherwise, you can go back to where you came from” is what many people think but do not say. For immigrant groups and even other subgroups in the U.S., the pressure to embody the mainstream culture’s values and customs stems from the same place: the dominant group.
The dominant group
Let’s be honest here: there is one group of people who have been in power in the United States ever since those thirteen small colonies became a nation. What is considered normal and correct for this group is accepted as normal for everyone in the United States. If people act and speak like the dominant group, then they are just being “American.” If they do not follow the standards of this group, then they are inferior and left on the outside. An example of this: “Ebonics.” Black vernacular continues to be seen as invalid and “improper” by many people mostly because of its roots. However, linguists have found language rules in Black vernacular that are similar to that of other dialects and languages. Nevertheless, its validity is continuously questioned because the dominant group does not understand it and is thus uncomfortable with it.
Similar to the “Ebonics” debate is the immigration debate. And being honest again, if the population of people growing in the United States were Swedish, I am not quite sure there would even be a debate. But the reality is that many immigrants–illegal ones included–are coming from Mexico. This is a group that is particularly threatening to American culture because not only is this group growing at a rapid rate but they also speak a different language (in addition to or in place of English).
I cannot pretend that I do not understand the fears of people like Bob Kellar, irrational as they may be. I remember when I came home from studying abroad in France; I was so excited to be surrounded by English and to able to understand everything that everyone said around me. But back home in California, I found myself on the outside: in shopping malls and public places, I was hearing more Spanish than English. I laughed it off thinking that it was almost like being abroad again. I also resolved that I was going to take a Spanish class within the next year (which I did).
But in that moment, I understood the gripping fear that comes with home not feeling quite like home. As an American, I was supposed to be able to understand all things about my culture. I was not supposed to feel like a foreigner on my own soil. And yet I did. And as the cultural makeup of the United States changes, this feeling is bound to affect more and more Americans.
Is it wrong to feel this way?
After reading about Bob Kellar’s comments, I thought more about my time in France. While I was there, I wanted to show my respect for their culture and I did so by using their language and following their customs. As students, we were told to be respectful participants–to leave our old customs behind for new ones. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me and I willingly did this (or tried my best, anyway).
But I can’t help but wonder: why is it that in the United States, when anti-illegal immigration groups say essentially the same thing, it doesn’t feel right? How come I understand France’s fight to keep globalization from tearing down the culture and language they have spent thousands of years building and protecting, but in the United States, I oppose assimilation?
After much reflection, I realized that it’s because being American means belonging to a culture created from a variety of other cultures. It is inherent in our founding principles that we embrace change and transformation, not run from it. Being American is not about one group’s customs being more important than another group’s simply for seniority’s sake. Rather, America is about blending all of the different cultures together to make a new one that accepts people and gives them each the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
So many Americans fear that immigrants will try to replicate their former culture and in doing so, they will stamp out American culture completely. But I cannot help but remember that when I came home from France, I was not suddenly a French woman. I was still an American, but an American who had had enriching experiences that gave me a fresh new perspective. I did adopt some new habits, but it was not like the old me had disappeared. I believe the same to be true with Americans and the issue of immigration: it’s not about everything that we will “lose” by taking on the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but it’s about what we will gain by weaving different cultures into the beautiful tapestry that is our nation.
What do you think about Immigration in the United States?
Comment here, read more blogs on Care2 about immigration, or take action by signing an immigration petition to “Reform America’s Broken Immigration System.”
Photo Courtesy of Istockphoto.com
By Erika Oglesby