Sunday, June 2, 2013

Well, I Don't Speak Cracker

One of my racist friends posted the above meme on Facebook the other day.  It wasn't a surprise to me; she's posted such material before.  I don't defriend her because she gives me these little insights into the way the minds (to use the word loosely) of xenophobic white Republicans work.  But I did post a snotty comment asking her what the hell "speak burrito" was supposed to mean.  Another friend of hers came to her aid, explaining that it probably means that if you live in these United States, you need to speak the language.  I don't remember exactly what I answered, but I wish I'd simply asked "Why?"

True, people who want to become naturalized American citizens are required to show competence in "ordinary" English, as well as pass a civics test.  But this is a relatively recent development, only since 1906 or 1908 or 1940, according to the government policy manual.  Evidently the Founding Fathers weren't much concerned about immigrants speaking English -- not enough to make it mandatory.  And that wasn't because there weren't lots of citizens at the time the Constitution was ratified who didn't speak English: German and French were common, and that's not counting the American Indian languages.  By the time the English requirement was implemented, millions more people had become naturalized citizens without having to know English.

Prospective citizens can get an exemption from the English test, though not the Civics test, if they're over 50 years old and have been permanent US residents for at least 20 years, or 55 and have been residents for 15 years.  (There are exemptions from both requirements for people with mental or physical disabilities.)  As I've pointed out before, it's ironic that the people who are most complacent about their native-born superiority didn't have to "earn" citizenship (to use President Obama's word) -- they were awarded it simply for being born here.  I've seen the civics test when coworkers were studying for it, and though it's not very difficult, I think most of the xenophobes I know would fail it spectacularly if they had to take it without preparation.

I agree it's a good idea to learn some of the language of a country you're living in, but many expatriates don't.  Sometimes they officially plan to return to their homeland, so they plead lack of necessity, and often they socialize only with other expatriates as much as possible.  Some of my classmates from high school live in Mexico, like many American retirees.  They never post in Spanish that I've seen, and I wonder how much Spanish they know.  (I must ask them sometime.)  After all, if you're going to live in Mexico, you should speak Mexican.  All the time.  I also know some Americans who teach English in Asia, some of them for years, and I should ask them about their competence in the languages of their host countries.

I'm trying to figure out why this meme and its relatives annoy me so much.  Partly it must be its formal similarity to the "I don't speak Walmart" meme that pissed me off when a different racist friend shared it earlier this year.  But there was also a meme using a picture of John Wayne, with the "Why should I have to press 1 for English?" line, passed along by yet another racist friend.  I don't know what the notoriously reactionary Wayne would have thought about pressing 1 for English, but I know that he spoke decent Spanish, married three Latinas (one at a time, of course -- he wasn't that traditional), and wanted the words Feo, Fuerte, y Formal (Ugly, Strong, and Dignified) on his tombstone, though his wish wasn't honored.  (I've also noticed that the people who wax racist about language purity also love to post religious material -- usually Christianity, but one language bigot I clashed with was heavily into New-Age/culture of therapy/recovery spirituality.  It doesn't seem to make much difference, or enhance their humanity in the slightest.)

But something else seems to be going on here.  Most of the Mexicans I know have picked up enough English to get by, but that doesn't seem to satisfy the English-only crowd, who seem to demand fluent, unaccented English from everybody, all the time.  If they can't stop foreigners from babbling their gibberish in foreign parts, they can at least draw a line in the sand here in the U.S. of A.  Often they're paranoid that the foreigners around them are talking about them.  (Hell, why not?  I sometimes post in Spanish on Facebook to do just that.)

Does anyone else remember the fuss in 2006 over a performance of a Spanish translation of "The Star Spangled Banner"?  Then-President Bush denounced it, and Senator Lamar Alexander introduced a resolution "affirming that statements of national unity, including the National Anthem, should be recited or sung in English."  Many of the fussbudgets were unaware that the anthem was first translated into Spanish in 1919.  (This blogger complains that "there's a Spanish 'translation' of The Star Spangled Banner making the rounds these days"; not just "these days," but if you don't know about the past it doesn't exist; that's the American Way.  He also doesn't understand the difference between a singing translation of a song text and a word-for-word crib, so he blames the loose singing translation on "political correctness."  It's always the other guy who's politically correct, of course.)  As Dennis Baron points out, it's normal (despite Christopher Hitchens) for sacred texts to be translated; hell, even some popular Christmas carols are translations from other languages.  The objection to people speaking or singing languages other than English must spring from some deeper anxiety than a concern about American values.