The Star-Spangled Banner, In Spanish?

What’s the big deal?

The other day, I got one of those forwarded e-mails that we all get from people who think they’re preaching to the choir. You know the kind. The e-mail expresses a very specific opinion, normally in angry terms, and the person who forwards it to you thinks you’ll agree and keep forwarding it to other people who will agree.

This particular message, like some others I occasionally get, hit a solid brick wall in my in-box. Not only did I disagree, but I feel that the people who do agree are looking at the issue with a typical small-minded, conservative attitude.

The issue was the proposed singing of the National Anthem in Spanish.

The Message

Here’s the entire, unedited text of the message, which was accompanied by idiotic cartoons I won’t bother to reproduce here:

No apology for sending this ! ! ! After hearing they want to sing the National Anthem in Spanish – enough is enough. Nowhere did they sing it in Italian, Polish, Irish (Celtic), Ger man or any other language because of immigration. It was written by Francis Scott Key and should be sung word for word the way it was written The news broadcasts even gave the translation — not even close. NOT sorry if this offends anyone because this is MY COUNTRY – IF IT IS YOUR COUNTRY SPEAK UP — please pass this along .

I am not against immigration — just come through like everyone else. Get a sponsor; have a place to lay your head ; have a job; pay your taxes, live by the rules AND LEARN THE LANGUAGE as all other immigrants have in the past — and GOD BLESS AMERICA!


Think about this: If you don’t want to forward this for fear of offending someone — YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM!

It is Time for America to Speak up

If you agree — pass this along, if you don’t agree — delete it!

Well, I don’t agree but I didn’t delete it. Instead, I’ll speak up, as the message urges.

Let’s set aside that the language the message was written in wasn’t even in good English. It’s fraught with punctuation errors that make it sound, when read, like the angry rant it is.

But let’s look at this person’s gripe. Spanish-speaking people would like to sing our National Anthem in their language. What’s so bad about that? I think we should be flattered. It’s the ultimate show of respect. By translating The Star-Spangled Banner into Spanish, they’re putting it into a language they can clearly understand. They’ll get the message of the words of the song.

Or does the message just not matter?

Some Truth about Our National Anthem

What’s the song about, anyway? Do these English-only ranters even know? Here’s some history from Wikipedia:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics come from a poem written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, a then 35-year-old amateur poet who wrote “Defence of Fort McHenry”[1] after seeing the bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore, Maryland, by Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.

The poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club. “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven”), set to various lyrics, was already popular in the United States. Set to Key’s poem and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song. With a range of one and a half octaves, it is known for being difficult to sing. Although the song has four stanzas, only the first is commonly sung today, with the fourth (“O thus be it ever when free men shall stand …”) added on more formal occasions.

This brings up three interesting points that the ranter probably didn’t know or even think about:

  • The poem by Francis Scott Key was set to the tune of a British drinking song. Key did not write the song. He wrote a poem later set to music.
  • The text written by Key is not usually sung as written. Indeed, only part of the poem is commonly sung. I challenge the writer of the message to sing or recite the missing stanzas or even tell me how many there are. Or sing the stanza added by Oliver Wendell Holmes during the Civil War. (Yes, it’s in Wikipedia.)
  • The poem is not about America. It’s about our flag. A specific flag, in fact, which hangs behind protective shield in the Smithsonian and can be viewed periodically throughout the day. (I’ve seen this huge, tattered flag in person and it puts real meaning to Key’s words.) It’s also about war.

Later, the Wikipedia entry directly contradicts what this small-minded ranter states in his message:

As a result of immigration to the United States, the lyrics of the song were translated into other languages. In 1861, it was translated into German.[12] It has since been translated into Hebrew [13], Yiddish by Jewish immigrants,[14] French by Acadians of Louisiana,[15] Samoan[16] and Irish.[17] The third verse of the anthem has also been translated into Latin.[18]

So there.

The Spanish translations are also discussed, along with the somewhat revealing statement, “It drew a critical response from President George W. Bush, who said that the national anthem should be sung in English.[21]” This clearly reveals the ranter as just another Bushie, echoing the president’s sentiments because he either can’t think for himself or because Rush Limbaugh told him to.

The Wikipedia entry, as usual, makes fascinating reading, with lots of history and links, as well as the complete lyrics to the song. Anyone interested in learning more about our National Anthem should check it out. People who want to rant about it might consider reading it before ranting publicly, so they get most of the facts straight and don’t sound like ignoramuses.

English as a Second Language

But I think what really pisses me off about this whole thing is the continued feeling among a certain group of Americans that immigrants must learn to speak English.

Let’s look at this objectively: every non-Native American in this country — the vast majority of the people here — is an immigrant or can be traced back to immigrant ancestors.

I don’t have to look back very far to find my transplanted roots in this country: my maternal great grandparents immigrated from Italy to New York around the turn of the century and my paternal grandparents immigrated from Germany to New Jersey in the 1930s.

I don’t know much about my great grandparents, but I do know that my grandmother’s mother never learned to speak English. She was a homemaker who lived in an Italian neighborhood, surrounded by people who spoke Italian. Her nine American-born children, including my grandmother, were bilingual. She was deeply religious, a Catholic who likely attended mass conducted in Latin.

My paternal grandparents learned to speak English right away. My grandfather, trained as a pastry chef in Europe, worked in a bakery until he was able to open his own. My grandmother worked up front, dealing with the customers. They had to learn English to succeed in their business. Their two sons were bilingual, although I don’t think my father, the younger of the two, speaks German very well.

There are two points I want to emphasize here:

  • We are the immigrants. Did we come here and learn to speak Navajo or Sioux or Cherokee? No. Instead, we forced the indians to send their children to our schools in an attempt to eradicate their culture. We forced them to speak English and, as a result, many of the native American languages have been lost forever. As a white American, I’m not proud of that.
  • People who come to this country will learn to speak English when they need to. An immigrant living in an immigrant neighborhood or town may not need to learn much English at all. But if he wants to work with English-speaking people and get ahead in this country, he’ll learn to speak the language of the people he deals with. That’s why the English-speaking day laborers are more likely to get work or better pay than the non-English-speaking ones. It’s also why English-speaking employers who hire immigrant laborers learn to speak their language: so they can hire and communicate with the cheapest ones. The language barrier is an economic barrier that works both ways.

And let’s cut to the chase here: how many Americans who move to Mexico or Costa Rica or other places where their dollars enable them to live like kings speak Spanish fluently?

Besides, many “Americans” don’t speak English very well anyway.

Your Turn to Rant

I’m certain that this post will get the hairs up on the backs of certain regular readers here. It’s not my intention to annoy anyone. I just want people to think about it objectively.

What’s the big deal?

Use the comment link or form to state your case. Just remember to keep it civil. If you get abusive toward me or any other commenter, your comment won’t appear here.

11 thoughts on “The Star-Spangled Banner, In Spanish?

  1. I find that any time an email message asks one to “forward the message to all your friends” it is never worth forwarding because it is always short on facts and thought.

    I enjoy watching foreign language movies (with subtitles), listening to non English music, and going to ethnic festivals where other languages are in use. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been successful at learning any other language and English even suffers with my use.

    I do think that all business and all voting should be conducted in an official language, currently English. I think that assures a more common understanding.

    The problem with being so emphatic that other languages should not be used is that someday, English may easily not be the most commonly used language in this nation and how prepared are we to learn a new language?

    When I go to a Mexican restaurant, should I be upset because the attendant has an accent or I have difficulty understanding them? No When I go to my bank and I experience the same thing, should I be upset? Possibly.

    To expand this thought, the world is getting too homogenized already. I like some variety in all things, even variety in language is interesting. The alternative is the language WalMart would sell (one size fits all), no variety, small vocabulary, with little thought. In other words I wouldn’t like a world where McDonald’s is considered a restaurant rather than the fast “food” place it is.

    Further, I think that anyone who appreciates this country, even if they speak a language other than English, deserves it.

    Waving a flag doesn’t make one a better American, quite often the opposite. Practicing (not twisting) the ideas presented in our constitution does make one a better American. I don’t remember anything in that document about a one language state? It’s generic enough to work with any language, even when translated.

    Dons last blog post..Not happy With The Democrats?

  2. Well, I definitely am not as eloquent as Maria, but here is my take on this English subject.

    I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen of New York. There were a zillion different ethnicities located within a square mile of our house.

    I found that people are more comfortable with their own group and tend to exclude outsiders.

    To assimilate into a country, in my opinion you must learn the national language. If you don’t, then you don’t have to feel part of the big picture and our way of life will suffer.

  3. Don, I think that part of the problem is that the U.S. doesn’t currently have an “official” language. That’s part of what the “English only” folks are so hot and bothered about. (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong on this.)

    Bob, well said. New York is a city of neighborhoods and a real melting pot. But I think that the people who assimilate into the mass — in this case, by learning English — are the people who will truly get ahead in life. I just hope they don’t sacrifice their culture along the way.

    One of my big regrets in life was that my father’s parents didn’t teach us German. They spoke it all the time at home and could have gotten us started when we were very young. Being bilingual is a great skill because it opens you up to multiple worlds. One of my personal goals in life (one of my original four, two of which I’ve accomplished) is to learn to speak Spanish fluently. Spanish is a very popular language in Arizona, where I live.


  5. Great article on the SS Banner.

    Great sentiments too in opposition to American Nazis who want to control thought, ideas, expression, language, ethnicity, and the way people vote, etc.

    Sing your hearts out in any language you want.

    God bless America and confound the enemies of democracy, even those that live in Beverly (Hills that is)!

    Ronnie – yo soy immigrante

  6. Problem: We live in America, where we speak English. People that choose to live here, should learn the language since, all transactions that effect our ENTIRE country are undertaken in English. Anyone willing to come to this country, but not take the time to learn the language to formally interact within the AMERICAN social enviorment, is part of the problem, and detracting from our American way of life, which just so happens to be in English. You seriously think that changing our countrys’ national anthem to a language spoken by those that don’t want us to be here to begin with is a good thing? I think changing the national anthem to spanish goes against all that we stand for in this nation. Our nation was founded by people fighting oppresion from people SPEAKING SPANISH. You think changing THEIR anthem to the language of their enemies is respectful? You are part of the problem, the problem is that your family immigrated here like you said in the 1930’s. So your family came much later, if yor like me, and you can trace your familys’ heritage to AMERICA since the early 1700’s, then you would understand why we feel the way we do when these wetbacks want to change MY fucking song to their annoying ass language. Who really wants to listen to fucking mariachis anyway… It’s all repetitive and makes no sense, just like their idea to change my anthem to their illegal immigrant providing way of life.

  7. Noneya: You need to re-read what I wrote (if you read it at all) and check your facts.

    First, I never said I wanted to CHANGE the language of the national anthem. I just don’t have any problem with people who want to sing it in another language.

    Our nation was NOT founded by “people fighting oppression from people speaking Spanish.” Where the hell did you get THAT idea? Open a history book and thumb to the pages about a little conflict called The American Revolution. The people oppressing us were the British under the leadership of King George III. If you ever read the Declaration of Independence, you’d understand that. It’s written in English, so you shouldn’t have much trouble with it.

    You really need to consult someone about your anger issues. You have no idea how moronic your rant sounds. My only regret is that I didn’t read and respond to it sooner.

  8. I completely agree with you that Spanish people should be able to sing the national anthem in Spanish if they want. I really believe the most important thing is that they understand what the anthem says and that they respect the history and values of America. Futhermore, I really believe that English is not an easy language to learn for people who do not know it. In addition, I think even a person who does not know english well should be able to apreciate the national anthem because we are all PEOPLE,
    I think it is stupid for someone to believe that they are superior to another human being just because they are not a U.S. citizen and do not understand english well.

  9. @Nina
    As an American, I’m honored by the desire of people to sing my country’s national anthem in their language. Sadly, however, there are a lot of small-minded people in this country who forget that we’re all immigrants here.

  10. As a veteran, I’m offended by the notion of singing the national anthem in a FOREIGN language. I’m half Armenian. When my relatives immigrated to this country their desire was to fully integrate as American citizens. That meant learning the language as well as the culture of America. Sadly, many (not all) immigrants today have no desire to integrate. To all of those that disagree with me, I challenge you with this notion. If cohesion is the virtue you embrace, wouldn’t it then stand to reason that integration should be what we as a society should strive for?

What do you think?