Why Politicians Can't Take the Anthem in Spanish

Ariel Dorfman writes in this Sunday's Outlook Section of The Washington Post about why politicians don't like "El Himno" the Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He argues that it's time to start accepting that America soon will be a bilingual country.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Over a week ago, a group of Latin pop stars came out with a Spanish version of the Star-Spangled Banner and it quickly hit a sour note, at least here in Washington, D.C. President Bush went on the record saying that the national anthem should be sung only in English. Senator Lamar Alexander introduced a resolution calling for all patriotic compositions to be in English. Writer Ariel Dorfman says he understands why Nuestro Himno is so controversial. He also says we should get used to it. His op-ed, Waving the Star-Spangled Banner appeared in yesterday's Outlook section of the Washington Post. If you'd like to weigh in on this issue, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail, talk@npr.org. Ariel Dorfman is professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, and he joins us now from the studios at Duke University News. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

ARIEL DORFMAN (Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies, Duke University): Thank Neal. It's great to be on.

CONAN: The song seems to have hit a nerve on both sides.

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, you know, it's strange but when you introduced it, what I wrote in the Washington Post, you said it was Waving the Star-Spangled Banner. And in fact, it's Waving the Star-Spanglish Banner, that's how they put it in the Washington Post. So the fact is, people are used to the Star-Spangled Banner and they feel, I think they feel that their identity in some sense is in crisis or is being challenged in some way by the fact these Spanish pop stars or Spanish-language pop stars have now decided to transmit and broadcast Nuestro Himno. And I think the reason is because there are millions of people in the streets singing it in Spanish, or speaking it in Spanish, and they feel that there is a threat to the national identity. And I think on the contrary, the national identity should be bilingual. It should not be, I don't think people should feel necessarily, I don't know, you know, hurt or damaged or threatened really by the fact that we are on the way to becoming a bilingual country, a multi-lingual country but at least bi-lingual for sure.

CONAN: At least bi-lingual for sure, and in that respect, in a lot of ways this has become a proxy battle about a whole bunch of other things.

Prof. DORFMAN: Absolutely about immigration. It's about the fact that there are, you know, there are all these immigrants. And you know, it's interesting, lots of people who objected to this was sent me lots of -- I've got tons and tons of e-mails on this, and you know, there are people who agree with me and people who disagree with me very, very, with, you know, quite strongly I would say. But most of them are speaking about the fact that these are illegal immigrants. And many of the people who most object to Nuestro Himno being, you know, the Star-Spangled Banner being sung in Spanish, are themselves relatively recent immigrants who got in through the door, they got their passport, they got their Visas, they did their things and they became citizens. And they said, hey, look at all these people now. They're coming in our, strange enough those are the ones who really want this to be only in English, as if that were the badge of their identity, saying, don't confuse us with those illegal immigrants who are there. They're illegal, we're legal. Don't make believe we're the same thing.

CONAN: Well, some of them would say that in fact they spent, in some cases, years playing by the rules, doing it according to the law, as opposed to people who just came across the border.

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, they're absolutely right. I did the same thing. I played by the rules and I became a citizen and I, you know, I just happen to be entirely bilingual, but I don't forget the fact that there are all those other people who can't get jobs from where they are, and who come here for the American dream. You know, Neal, this is a moment, a very special moment in American history. We have never had more despersio(ph), I would say. We've never been, our popularity's never been lower abroad. People are burning the flag assiduously all across the globe, you know. And I would suspect that we would, we would welcome that anybody, in any language whatsoever, would want to sing a hymn to the national, the national anthem. That hymn in any language whatsoever, right? Instead of which, you know, they're saying, no, they shouldn't be able to do it, only in English. The fact is, the real question is, what is this country going to be, what is its identity? And I say that this identity is going to be inevitably -- I'm not saying it's happening tomorrow --I'm saying inevitably it's going to be articulated in two languages, basically in Spanish and in English. That's a demographic reality and is a cultural reality, and I think we should get used to. I really think we should. And there's no reason, as I said, I said this in the New York Times some years ago in another op-ed. I said look don't be scared, you're not going to lose Shakespeare, you're just going to gain Cervantes, and there's nothing wrong with that.

CONAN: Our number, if you'd like to join the conversation, I'm looking at the phones, I think a few people do, is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The email address is talk@npr.org. Let's begin with Ricky. Ricky's calling us from Durham, North Carolina.

RICKY (Caller): Hey, how are you guys doing today?

CONAN: Good.

RICKY: First of all, I just want to say that me being Hispanic, specially Puerto Rican, first of all, I do want to, I do respect everybody's opinions on this, but also a curious note, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that the first person that sing the national anthem in English in his own version was Jose Feliciano.

Prof. DORFMAN: Yes.

RICKY: He sing it at a baseball game. As far as actually singing in Spanish, I kind of disagree with that because is, is nation's anthem. So as far as like the Puerto Rican anthem, I don't want nobody to be singing at a different rhythm because it's only actually rhythm in a dancer, so you don't want nobody else changing it to a merengue or tregador(ph)or something like that. And so I do respect the movement that we're trying to make. But the movement that we're trying to make is to integrate into society that has already been establish. So my point is I don't agree with changing something that has been established for so long, people have died for and defended, so as far as us standing, being part of something, we want to integrate with the system. We don't want to come and alternate the system.

CONAN: Hmm. What do you think, Ariel Dorfman?

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, what I think is that systems change, and that's what nations also change, you know. And if, if it was a primarily monolingual nation, though it's always had immigrants of different sorts...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. DORFMAN: ...at this point we can think of a different possibility. I mean, I think that bilingual nations are wonderful. (Speaks foreign language). Perhaps because I'm bilingual myself, you know. But, look, you know, the, the, the version that these pop stars are singing in fact comes from the 1919 version which was prepared by and asked for by the U.S. Bureau of Education. So in 1919 -- that's why, if you listen to it, it's very old-fashioned in fact. In fact, it's not a very good translation because it's full of old -- it's like thou and thee, and this sort of thing. You know, they're using these older forms. So the real question is, is it essential, is it crucial to the nature of the United States that it be only monolingual and English, or does it have space, as it does on all of the streets, as it does in when you're looking for a driver's license, as it does in when you pick up the phone and they say, if, if it's Spanish, press 2, you know, that sort of thing. Well, is there space, is there a space, for another language in this nation? I'm talking about a hundred years from now, I'm talking 50 years from now, I'm saying this is going to happen. And I'm saying if it's going to happen, then instead of feeling threatened, what we should do is, we should ask ourselves, is the national soul only expressible in the English language? And listen, I speak English, I mean, I speak English well, I write English well, and yet I love the Spanish language as well and I feel enriched by that.

The question is why do we feel at this moment such a crisis of identity that the fact that these, these, these pop stars decided to show their love for their country by singing this anthem in Spanish, why should that be felt as a challenge, as a threat, as, I mean, you know, it's extraordinary the repudiation that there is about this. I would say that we're in a deep identity crisis, and we should look at that and ask ourselves do we want to be schizophrenic and deny the fact that Spanish is here to stay, or if we want simply to welcome it into that and figure out the way out of this national crisis. The national soul, as President Bush said, the national soul is in danger, he said. We should figure that out in any language that we can, especially in Spanish, because it's so prevalent in so many places inside the United States.

RICKY: do understand your point of view. The thing is that--the question is how long will it take to actually have the American citizen understand where you're coming from? We probably will get stomp on, punished, looked at the wrongful way, for trying to do something that has been done a hundred years ago, like I say, but no, no, no, no, no, we don't want to do that now. So as far as actually trying to say, well, it has been done in the past, the society now say, well, it's been okay for a hundred years, why we want to mess with it now?

Prof. DORFMAN: Mm-hmm.

RICKY: And then, because look, now everybody's looking at, as far as like every Latino in the country, even immigrant or not immigrant, citizen are actually arrested and you're still an immigrant. You can be look into the eyes and you might look, you know, like you're from Argentina, but if someone doesn't know it, they can call you like actually an immigrant saying, well, you're Mexican. So everybody...

Prof. DORFMAN: No, but, you know, everybody, I mean, they're from Ireland, they're from Italy. I mean except the native Americans, you know, who also came over the Bering Strait, everybody came here from some place obviously...

RICKY: True, true, true. But the thing is...

Prof. DORFMAN: ...and we should just, I mean...

RICKY: ...to find work, as far as saying if we're going to do this, I think that actually the whole issue about this is it just is a little bit out of time.

Prof. DORFMAN: Mm-hmm.

RICKY: Probably you could have done actually a little bit later down the line, not when we're...

Prof. DORFMAN: Yeah.

RICKY: ...trying to establish, not when we're trying to actually make a demand to Congress to say, to say, hey, we're illegal here, but we want to be--have amnesty.

Prof. DORFMAN: Mm-hmm.

RICKY: You know, probably people...

Prof. DORFMAN: Yeah. You know what, you know what writers do? They transgress. They tell the truth. This is what lots and lots of Latinos are thinking, and they don't want to say it, because of course they don't want to rile up Congress and make Congress feel as if this is a terrible thing. But I have to tell the truth about the things, you know, and I think that the sooner that we begin to get accustomed to this, that we begin this debate -- the debate is about what sort of society the United States is going to be. Is it going to be a walled-off society? Is it going to be an isolationist society? Is it going to be a society that's scared of the duality of life and the ambiguity of life? Or is it going to be open, tolerant, willing to welcome those who come here? All those people who come here, they come here because they believe -- in fact, I think they believe more in the United States than many of the people who are Anglo-Americans, really.

CONAN: Ricky, thank you.

Prof. DORFMAN: They do.

CONAN: Ricky, thanks very much for the time.

RICKY: Hey, thanks, guy, for the good time.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking today with Ariel Dorfman on the TALK OF THE NATION opinion page about his Wave the Star-Spanglish Banner. I accept the correction, thank you very much. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION...

Prof. DORFMAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: ...from NPR News. And let's talk with Diane. Diane's calling us from Detroit.

DIANE (Caller): Hi. I think that the soul of our nation is at risk when the president of our country says that the Star Spangled Banner shouldn't be sung in anything but English. This country should be an inclusive country, and that's the most exclusionary statement I can imagine and makes me ashamed to be an American, to hear our president say something like that.

CONAN: So, all right, Diane, I...

Prof. DORFMAN: Can I comment on that?

CONAN: Please, go ahead.

Prof. DORFMAN: Yes. I just wanted to say thank you, Diane. I agree. I mean, you know, the soul of the nation is in danger if the erosion of civil liberties continues the way it has been. The soul of our nation is in danger if people are tortured in the name of the United States, and the vice-president said, you know what, at some point it may be necessary. The soul of our nation is in danger when we invade a country with false pretenses and under fraudulent intelligence. I don't think the soul of the nation is in danger when people say we want to belong to this nation, we want to work there. No, these are the people who bake the bread, these are the people who change the diapers, these are the people who mow the lawns, these are the people who build the buildings, these are the people -- I mean, they're all over the country. Why can't they sing in this? They can't sing in Spanish because there's the idea that if you sing in Spanish, that could endanger the unity of the nation. I think the unity of the nation is endangered when we don't agree on our basic values. And one of the basic values is that inclusiveness, I think. You know, the huddled masses, well, they should come, and they come with their languages. Of course, they come, and they come and they sing whatever they want, and we shouldn't feel threatened by that. I mean, I don't feel threatened by that.

CONAN: Diane, thanks for the call.

DIANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get Morott(ph), am I pronouncing correctly?

MOROTT (Caller): Morott?

CONAN: Yes, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Go ahead, please.

MOROTT: Yes. Well, this argument, I recently read about this argument in a Turkish newspaper. John Gundar Ameliat(ph) has raised an argument and that was right after when in Germany the Turkish minority started singing the German national anthem, the national hymn in German...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MOROTT: ...in Turkish. And the conservative section of the society really react in medieval provencialist way into this. The way I see that is that the singing the national anthem is a way to embrace the society as a whole, like the definition of being German, of being American really. So, this really signals -- like this, this really is a change in terms of embracing the national --nationality for these new people who feel repelled. So the point that I really think people miss is that those repelled societies, minorities, singing Prosper the German Nation or Prosper the American Nation, rather than anything else, so I strongly disagree with the conservative view of repelling this. I mean, I agree on the sacredness of, of the flag and everything, but it's -- I think, I think this is, this is just an argument that needs to be, that needs to be won all over the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call.

MOROTT: Thank you.

CONAN: And just to, just to follow on to that, obviously the song has tremendous symbolic importance, Ariel Dorfman, just as the flag is not just a piece of cloth. And obviously the republic survived when Jimi Hendrix played his version of it at Woodstock, but some people thought that was tricky and something that should be debated as well. Have we lost the feed from North Carolina? I guess we have. Anyway, while we get somebody else's opinions on this, Ariel Dorfman has apparently left us, and talk with Ellen(ph). Ellen's with us from Winchester, Virginia.

ELLEN (Caller): I had experienced skiing in Canada many years ago and saw the French and English fight at its worst. My family's been in this country since the 1600s. Part of my family was French, part of it was English, and later we had Irish come. They all learned to speak English. Are the South Americans and the Central Americans not capable of learning to speak English the way all the rest of them have? If so, I don't think we need them. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Okay, Ellen, thanks very much for the call. And we thank everybody else who joined us today in this conversation, and we thank Ariel Dorfman. He apparently thought I said goodbye when I was doing that little identification earlier, and I'm sure he would have stayed on for the conversation had he known. We thank him for his time today. He's a professor of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University, and joined us today from the Duke University news service studio. In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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