Friday, February 13, 2009

Patriotic Thoughts From the Western Hemisphere

People are chauvinistic about a lot of things. I am a Western hemisphere chauvinist. Anyone who made it to North and South America was being creative about their survival. It is hard to imagine how hard it must have been for the early pioneers. My father took a week to come to America by boat. He spent three quarters of the trip spewin grits, calling for earl, whatever you want to call it. One of my uncles was buried at sea on the way over. My wife's family lost some people on the way over. That was just an introduction.

Coming to a new country takes guts. Being bombarded with a strange language day in and day out is exhausting. Trying to think in a language you have not yet mastered is like stuffing yourself into a shirt that is too small. Some people never completely adapt. My maternal grandmother completely withdrew into an ethnic enclave where she could speak only Croatian. She knew how to make change and say good morning. She also made bathtub gin and picked mushrooms, two hobbies that almost put her down to room temperature.

Europeans get uppity about their variants of languages. They think their English, French and Spanish are the gold standard. I feel gratitude to Europe for giving us our languages, but I'm plenty proud of what we have done with the language and culture in a new environment. It's interesting how massive waves of immigration shaped American spoken English. Trough movies and music, we have even influenced their speech.

I feel gratitude to the French for making English what it is today. For about two hundred years, England was occupied by France. French and Latin each had their domains. English was for the common people. It looked a lot more like Dutch and German in the year 1200 than it does today. Defeating the French gave rise to a new stage in the development of English. It is a fascinating story.

I take a perverse pleasure in English spelling. Some words are spelled like they were once pronounced. Light was once pronounced like the Yiddish and German "Licht". Final "e" was once pronounced. The word starve comes from the Middle English "sterven" and is related to the German "sterben", both of which mean "to die". When I examine English words, it is like walking through a museum.

In German and Yiddish, you have 'the fingers of the feet." the first time I heard that I burst out laughing. English has "toes'.

I think that there is a willingness to take risks and an ability to see and grasp opportunities that characterises an immigrant. It can manifest itself positively as an entrepreneurial spirit. Or it can express itself in criminal behavior. I think that this is the grain of truth that feeds positive and negative stereotypes about immigrants.

My rabbi, Rabbi Zuber had a saying. "Ancestors are like zeroes. You can have a mile long string of zeroes but they aren't worth anything until you put a one in front of them. I watch the people who are doing things in life. Some day they will be someone's ancestors.

I like people who are a bit conceited. Because if someone is conceited they will talk. And if they talk I can learn from them. When this conceit becomes haughtiness, that is when I stop showing respect. That is when I talk about my aunt who quit school in third grade to take care of her siblings or my grandfather who mixed cement for railroad trestles. I don't come from a list of famous people and I wouldn't say if I did. When I speak with my cousin about the first generation in this country, I get off the phone thinking about the nameless people who make life what it is. When I walk by a school or office building and look at the brickwork around the cornerstone, I imagine how many days of work went into building the walls. when did the workers break for lunch. Was this brick or that laid on a spring day or in the summer? Which bricks were laid on Friday? On a certain level, all of the buildings in a city, all of the power cables and telephone cables are like fossils from millions of hours of labour, another museum of my daydreams.

When I hear Spanish and French, I hear echoes of the past. In the eighteenth century, no one knew if the English, the Spanish the French or the Dutch would end up politically dominant in the Western Hemisphere. Even as late as the mid 1800's, President Martin Van Buren and his wife spoke Dutch in the White House. The French of Louisiana and Quebec is descended from dialects that did not achieve political dominance. To this day, even the mark of Russia is seen in Alaska, where the Inuit were converted to Christianity by Russian Orthodox missionaries.

The Spanish mixed with different local Indian tribes, creating a rainbow of ethnic mixes.In a lot of countries, particularly Mexico and Peru, there is a caste system, in which those with the highest percentage of Spanish blood come out on top. There is a level of ethnic chauvinism and prejudice that is hard to imagine in the United States. The Spanish were deeply enmeshed in the slave trade. One reason that Argentina has so few Afro Argentinians is because of official policy which reduced Blacks to a minuscule percentage of the Argentinian population. Whether it was outright genocide, ethnic cleansing, neglect or dilution through selective immigration is a matter of contention among historians. There is a growing movement towards recognition of an Afro Argentinian presence in Argentina, along with some expressions of alienation from the mainstream historical narrative similar to that frequently expressed by African Americans.

The American melting pot produces some amazing mixes. I have known Irish-Polish, Scottish Italian and people with ethnicity that crossed racial lines. I barely give it a thought. What is beautiful is how people come to America and give up the prejudices which blighted the homes of their ancestors. Hindus and Muslims for instance have fought bloody wars in India and Pakistan. I used to go to a news stand which a Hindu and Muslim managed together. The owner was a devout Hindu, who even paid to build a temple in his home town in India. He and his Muslim manager used to cover each other during prayer times. More than once I came in when one or the other was deep in prayer with his partner manning the register.

When I lived in northern Italy, there was strong prejudice against Sicilians, Neapolitans and other southern Italians among my classmates. Southern Italy is both beautiful and poor. As an American, I saw the contributions and achievements of Italian Americans in the U.S. It is a success story repeated many times over. The British regarded the Irish as less than human. Irish men were conscripted into slavery. Even before the English break from Catholicism, English Catholics were not allowed to receive sacraments from Irish priests. During the potato famine, crops were taken as rent from starving sharecroppers. The Irish who came to America did so largely out of desperation. England's loss was our gain. The Irish so disdained by the British contributed a great deal to building America into a great country.

What is greatest about America is its ability to feel shame. The Japanese conscripted women in occupied countries into forced prostitution. Sixty five years later, they still have yet to admit their wrongdoing. America has by contrast gone through national introspection about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two.

America has because of its ethnic diversity a multitude of different viewpoints that contribute to a more honest rendering of history. America started out as a country in which chattel slavery was the law of the land, with only white male property owners permitted to vote. Since our founding, the circle of inclusion in America has widened. America has shown its ability to balance self criticism and correction with belief in itself.

America has founded its prosperity on those who were broken and downtrodden in their home and sought new opportunities here. Anyone who looks at the history of America's immigrants finds special resonance in the words of Emma Lazarus.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

These words make me think of my grandparents burying their first born son at sea. They remind of my uncle who worked in mines carrying up body parts from underground explosions and my aunt who as a child dropped out of school to care for younger siblings These words have personal resonance for me.

The western hemisphere speaks variants of French, Spanish and English that are haughtily disdained as "declasse'" It took in immigrants who were regarded with scorn at home. And from these scorned fragments it built a mosaic.

I am proud of our diversity. I am proud of the new opportunities we extend to new citizens as well as our concept of equality under law. Our aristocracy is that of achievement. Most of all, I am proud of our ability to feel shame, of our ability to change course. America is almost always first in line to come to the rescue in a national disaster anywhere in the world.

I have heard people speak disdainfully of the new world variants of languages brought over from Europe too many times. American English has served us quite well I'll take popular music from Quebec over French pop any day.My favourite Spanish music is from South America. It is seasoned with wide variety of influences and ranges from "Euro" to "Indio" and "Africano". Next time someone tells me "You don't speak English, you speak American, I will smile and say "Thanks buddy. You made my day. "

The song at the top of this posting is from Vilain Pingouin, a great Quebec rock gtoup that sings in Quebec French. The video at the bottom is from Ricardo Arjona, a Guatamalan basketball star and teacher who became a very popular singer. Both are selections I like to listen to when I am in a "western hemisphere chauvinist" mood

No comments: