The other day an acquaintance sent me an email which said, “Where Do I Order Mine??” above a picture of this shirt.
My first thought was, I guess he would’ve kicked my great-grandfather out.
I used to ask my grandmother what Sicily was like. “There was nothing there,” she always answered. But if Sicily had nothing, America had everything, and her father, John Rio, grabbed for it. He opened a cobbler’s shop a Sicilian neighborhood in the South Bronx, where many of the immigrants didn’t speak, read or write English. He made enough money to bring his four children over. They worked, married, raised their own children, kept working. His granddaughter—my mother—spoke Italian before she learned English. She became the first in her family to go to college.
My great-grandfather died at the age of ninety, having spoken no language in his life but Italian. And yet he’d been granted citizenship by a judge, who declared that America needed people with his kind of spirit.
The “English-only” movement isn’t new. In 1780, John Adams proposed that an official academy be created to "purify, develop, and dictate usage of," English. Interestingly, his plan was rejected by the Continental Congress as undemocratic, and a threat to individual liberty.
The “English-only” camp maintains that our country is united through a common language. I have trouble with this notion. Languages are fluid. They evolve and change, year by year. What unites us as Americans isn’t any one individual language. What unites us are the ideas on which the United States were founded. Those ideas aren’t bounded by English. They’re immutable. They go deeper, and will last longer, than any one tongue.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
Say these words—or these—in any language, and they remain uniquely American. The judge who granted citizenship to my great-grandfather understood this. Now more than ever, instead of short-sighted, reactionary slogans, we could use more of that kind of insight.