Melting the Pot
America used to known as a melting pot. People came here from all over the world to become Americans. They yearned for what we had here--freedom, opportunity, and hope. A few months ago, we stood where millions stood in line at Ellis Island to be cleared through immigration so that they could become something brand new. The great composer John Phillip Sousa's father came here from Italy with the last name So. He added the letters "usa" to his name in tribute to his new home.
These people wanted to be here. They wanted to be Americans. They wanted to be us.
Today I read in the Washington Times online edition that the Denver Public Library System is planning to make seven branches in the city Spanish language oriented. Any English materials will be put at the back, and all the workers will have to speak Spanish. This is wrong on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin.
It was in the library that I discovered what America had been--where my father took me when I was six years old to get a library card of my very own. It was there that I checked out "The True Book of Snakes"--the first book ever put on the record of card number 70 at the Linebaugh Public Library. But I went on from there to bigger and better things. I learned about George Washington and Patrick Henry and Paul Revere. I read Bruce Catton on the Civil War and Cornelius Ryan on World War II and William Manchester on everything he wrote about. I learned our common American culture in the library. (Yes, at home and at school and at church too, but those stacks of books held a special magic.)
America is blessed with a rich mix of ethnic heritages, cultures, cuisines, arts, and entertainment. But these have been made part of the overall American culture. Encouraging newcomers to our nation to hang on to their past language and not assimilate is a recipe for disaster. Many of the nations in our world are riven by rival tribes, fighting for prominence, preminence, or independence. We've seen genocidal struggles in the former Yugoslavia, in the Sudan, in Rwanada, and many fear a bitter civil war in Iraq lies in the future.
America has been spared that kind of strife precisely because we have been a people who come together. I'm an American whose ancestors came from Ireland (mostly). The days of the "no dogs or Irish" signs outside businesses are now long in our past. And that's a good thing. It takes a while for new groups to settle into our American culture. But it's a vitally important process. Short-circuiting that process undermines the foundations of this country.
There are now more people of Hispanic descent in America than there are people of African descent. And the demongraphic trend is accelerating. If we do not find a way for Hispanics to see themselves as Americans first and foremost, the social unrest of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s will pale in comparison to what is coming.
Spanish language libraries are a step in the wrong direction. A big step. We're encouraging people not to become part of the common culture of our nation--because if you don't share the language, you can't share the culture. I believe this is a well-intentioned effort, but a tragically misguided one.