All names are American, all accents are American

September 17, 1997|By Linda R. Monk

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- We the People. Nosotros el Pueblo. Do the words have any less power in Spanish than in English?

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day -- the anniversary of the signing of that document in 1787 -- and it is also Citizenship Day. It is a time to reflect on what being an American citizen actually means.

To many people, it means speaking English. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court punted on the issue in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, dismissing the case on procedural grounds. But 22 states have laws designating English as their official language, and similar bills are pending in Congress.

It is not a new issue. Benjamin Franklin, a charter member of Pennsylvanians for Official English, wrote in 1755 of German immigrants: ''Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs?''

The Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper articles written by James Madison and other supporters of the Constitution's ratification, were printed in both German and English. In 1794, German settlers in Virginia narrowly lost a proposal to have federal laws translated into their native tongue.

In a burst of patriotism during World War I, states passed laws against teaching German to children -- and won the editorial support of the New York Times. But the Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1923. Today, about 25 percent of the American population is of German ancestry, more than any other ethnic group.

English is no more the official language of the United States than Christianity is the official religion. True, 97 percent of American citizens speak English, just as the vast majority of them are Christian, but there is nothing essential to being American in either one.

What is essential? In the words of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution: ''While many nations are based on a shared language or ethnic heritage, Americans have made rights the foundation of their national identity.'' We are a people ''dedicated to the proposition'' of equal rights. Ideas, not language, define us. Being American is not something to which we are born, but to which we assent.

''I was an American before I was a U.S. citizen,'' says Juan Mestas, deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. ''The oath of citizenship was a confirmation rite.''

Dr. Mestas delivered the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony that I attended last fall -- my first. I commend it to anyone who wonders what being an American really means.

''Listen to the sound of my name,'' Dr. Mestas said with the rich intensity of a Cuban cigar. ''It's an American name. Listen to the intonations of my voice. I speak with an American accent.''

To the assembled crowd from Ghana to Guyana, from Canada to China, he exhorted: ''Be proud. Your color is an American color. Your accent is an American accent. Your name is an American name. This is a gathering of Americans.

''So, my brothers and sisters,'' he concluded simply, ''welcome home.''

An entire family became Americans that day. For my friends Shiv and Reirotie Singh, daughters Shivaulie and Shivonne, and native-born son Joshua, English is their mother tongue. Their Indian ancestors learned English in Guyana, once a British colony in South America, long before the Singh family arrived in America. Their English is impeccable.

Both Shiv and Reirotie work for the Close Up Foundation, the nation's largest civic-education organization. Their everyday business is making citizens, of both naturalized and native-born Americans. When Close Up sponsored the naturalization ceremony as part of a national conference of social-studies teachers, the Singh family decided that their time had come. As with Dr. Mestas, the ceremony merely confirmed in them a transformation that had begun long ago.

Official-English laws take away the welcome mat that Dr. Mestas offered. They invariably give the message that native-born Americans are superior because they are English-speakers (and often, as Benjamin Franklin would be quick to point out, English-looking).

Former U.S. Representative Toby Roth, a leader of the official-English movement in Congress, argues that many of his supporters are recent immigrants. According to one, he says, ''Spanish is the language of bellhops and busboys, while English is the language of doctors and lawyers.''

Tell that to Cervantes. Spanish is the language of Americans, no less than German or Italian or Chinese -- or English.

Nosotros el Pueblo.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide,'' which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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