When the Coke commercial began to play on Sunday, our Superbowl party of chatty adults and raucous children instinctively grew quiet. We watched the striking depiction of America the Beautiful unfold with tears in our eyes, mesmerized.
After halftime, I checked in on Twitter, and learned that not everyone in the country shared our sentiments. I sighed at comments like “We speak English here” and “Nice to see that coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist’s language” and cringed at hashtags like #wespeakamerican and #boycottcoke.
Inside, I ached on so many levels. (That seems to be happening a lot lately.)
I ached first because I spend my days teaching English to the very immigrants you suggest don’t belong in the country. They are among the hardest working, most generous and kindest people I have ever met. Contrary to your belief, they desperately want to learn English. However, this isn’t always as simple as it may appear.
If English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered in an area, there are often long waiting lists, the class times conflict with work schedules, parents don’t have child care, or work 3 jobs to make ends meet and simply don’t have time. Some, like many of you, have never had access to education and find learning a new language just as challenging as you would. Many didn’t have the opportunity to learn English before they arrived in the US because they fled their countries with only the clothes on their backs.
All my students speak English to some degree, but it’s also no secret that English is quite a challenging language to learn, and everyone (including yourselves, I might add) falls somewhere on a spectrum regarding a complete and accurate knowledge of the language itself. The issue is far more complex than a simple command to “Learn English”.
The other elephant-issue in the room is that even if immigrants learn English, they still speak their native language. Just because they speak English doesn’t mean they don’t still use their own language. It’s as much a part of who they are as being American. Multilingualism plays a significant role in our national history. Spanish predates English in the US, and there were debates in our early years if English or German would be the language of the government. Pretending that English is the only language spoken is inaccurate at best and dehumanizing at worst.
My students love America. They love its diversity and opportunity and potential. Read it in their own words:
From their optimism, you’d have no idea how much they sacrifice because they believe in and love this country. Their children don’t know their grandparents or aunties or uncles or cousins or beloved friends. Professionals with advanced degrees and impressive work histories accept menial jobs simply for the privilege of living here. They work long hours to provide, and then share what they have with a generosity that puts most native-born Americans to shame.
The ache also struck another, more personal chord because both growing up and living as an adult in the rural Middle, I frequently encountered these types of perspectives. They didn’t come from everyone, mind you, and gratefully not from my own family, but they are certainly a familiar part of my background.
Part of my family had roots in Appalachia that transplanted themselves to the hills of Southern Indiana and the other part were Swedish immigrant famers. We all grew into ‘good ole simple Midwesterners’. While I am not exactly one of those ‘liberal-coasters’ you like to rant about, I am a rural Indiana girl who frequently rubbed shoulders with you throughout a childhood that includes sweet memories of listening to country music in pickup trucks, riding in a tractor with my grandpa, devouring my grandma’s sweet rolls, rolling down hills, adventuring in cow-pastures and wading in creeks with my cousins. When I left home, I discovered a great big world that reflected so much of the goodness I had seen in my own little square of it; but it wasn’t scary like the tales I had so often heard – it was astoundingly beautiful.
So while I disagree wholeheartedly with your perspective that diversity in our country is not beautiful, I also know you. I know your names and your faces and your homes. I have played tag with you at recess and cheered with you at football games. I have been your neighbor, your customer, your colleague, your student, your teacher. For so many of these reasons, I know that these tweets don’t exactly give the rest of the country a complete picture of all that you are.
I know that you have families you love. Like tight-knit immigrant communities, you care for each other, bringing casseroles for new babies and plowing driveways in snowstorms without being asked. You visit hospitals and sit on porches and wave at neighbors and help out friends in need, even if you don’t really have enough for yourselves. Yes, there are ugly-racists among you, people who hate and spew all sorts of ignorance, but they do not tell your whole story for many of you disagree silently, but restrain from speaking for fear of rocking-the-boat, not knowing what to say or being told to ‘just take a joke’. Some of you may speak like this because it’s how you were spoken to or because you’ve never known anything different or because you don’t know or love anyone who is different from you. I know there are reasons for your words that go far deeper than the 140 characters you express them in.
But your words hurt. They scar and they maim. I know this, too.
I know firsthand that you don’t easily know what to do with people who are not like you. Our biracial and bicultural and multilingual-but-English-speaking family lived among you in a tiny little cornfield town for 8 long and painful years, enduring glares and scowls, holding hearts and sighing wearily with the very-few-others-like-us. You love yourselves well, but you did not love us at all. You ignored us in restaurants, ran us off roads, made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. You kept to yourselves when we reached out. You shrunk back in silence when the ugly-racists raised their loud voice.
There were some among you, however, who countered your iciness. They brought us casseroles, visited us when our young child was in the hospital, helped us build swingsets in our back yard, chatted with us in the schoolyard and invited us to their homes for dinner. Even if they didn’t always understand us, they offered their hands in friendship, listened and loved well. I will forever cherish their efforts to welcome us ‘strangers’ into their world.
Looking back, however, I so wish it all could have been different, that everyone in the land that gave me such a warm and rich and connected childhood knew how to welcome outsiders like they welcome insiders, that they applied the same fierceness of love they show their families to the newcomers among them.
These days, I lament how frequently I hear this story of us vs. them – a story that says everyone needs to be just-like-us-or-get-the-hell-out; a story that forgets that most of us were immigrants-learning-English ourselves not too long ago; a story that demonizes the other side without ever actually getting to know them. While it is not a new story, it is a broken strain of what has torn our country apart, not one that has united it.
This insularity and close-mindedness some of you wear like a badge really looks like an ugly-monster-mask to the rest of us. It hides your true self, covering up the goodness and beauty that is in you, too. By standing against the diversity represented in the #americaisbeautiful commercial, you are protesting some of the very ideals of family and virtue and community you value so deeply yourself (unless, of course, you side with the KKK. In that case, we have other issues to discuss.)
It reminds me of this peculiar name our forefathers gave us: the United States of America. Just as our families hold individuals of every ilk, what makes our nation most beautiful is the diversity within. Together, we’re attempting to tell a collective story to the world that echoes, ‘We’re better together.’The big cities and the tiny towns. The crazy liberals and the staunch conservatives. The blacks and the whites and the in-betweens. The mono-linguals and the multi-linguals. The fifth-generation descendants and the fresh-off-the-boats. The cornfields and the coasts.
This is why it was so beautiful to hear America the Beautiful sung in so many languages, and why I long so fervently to see the love I first learned in ‘Merica open its arms and embrace everyone in their midst instead of just themselves.
You are better than this, ‘Merica.
Embracing is something you do way better than the city-folk who won’t even look at each other on the street. The country has much to learn from you if you’d just drop your masks and share the beautiful parts of your lives instead of these ugly ones for you, too, are part of the America-that-is-beautiful. Please, help us keep it that way.
With love and hope for a new tomorrow,