by Cecilio Morales
With the new year arrives a perfect moment to reconsider the anti-immigrant demand that newcomers assimilate.
In linguistics, it refers to altering a sound, as happens when a language adopts foreign words (for example, the Spanish lazo, which became the English lasso).The fifth meaning, also figurative, is what people have in mind in the immigration debate: to absorb immigrants, or any culturally distinct group, into the prevailing culture. Yet in all the meanings of “assimilate,” something is consumed, absorbed, incorporated (literally, to become part of a body) after some process of digestion and alteration.All of this means that “B” becomes somehow enmeshed in “A.”
In the case of the United States, what is that “A” and why does it deserve pre-eminence?
The answer is more complicated than it sounds.History tells us that the first so-called New World inhabitants were the Indians. The European colonists did not assimilate into Indian society.
Are anti-immigrant advocates suggesting that we at last show some respect for the native inhabitants?
Somehow, I think not.What is today the United States, history also tells us became the colonial territory of three European powers: England, France and Spain. Which one of their cultures deserves to be first? On what grounds?Let’s try history again.In 13 of the North American English colonies, a civil war broke out in the 1770s. The population was so divided that an estimated 100,000 loyalists fled abroad at the end of the conflict. At that time, cultural roots among whites were about evenly divided between England and Germany to the point that choosing a national language for the new nation was deferred as too divisive.We might be singing “O, sagt, könnt ihr sehen” on the Fourth of July had the Deutsch, or “Dutch” prevailed, but then we’re forgetting the “other Persons” of the Constitution, who were African and spoke multiple languages.
Then there’s the purchase of land from France (the Louisiana territory) and Spain (Florida).
By the 1840s and ‘50s, what was to become the third major European group of the early United States arrived: the Irish.
They were certainly not English.So remind me, again, in this mix of Africans, English, French, Germans, Irish and Spanish, by what reason was the culture and language of the English to be accorded legal supremacy, when even the English dared not debate it for fear they would lose a vote?But wait. There’s the entire Southwest and West, stolen outright by war and conquest. Its predominant language and culture was not English.
Why should the territory from Texas to California have to assimilate the culture and language of the last and most unlawful newcomers, the Anglos?
Much the same question could be raised about almost any corner of the Earth.
People have the inalienable right to their own language and culture. Asserting that right is in the best tradition of the United States (even though in many chapters of the nation’s history it was not observed), as it is of the United Nations and of Lady Liberty, whose powerful gaze watches over both from her island.
(Cecilio Morales is executive editor of the weekly Employment & Training Reporter in Washington, D.C. Reach him at Cecilio@miipublications.com). ©2007