Part 5: Home of the Huddled Masses

I am told that the Statue of Liberty bears the following inscription: Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

A cursory study of American history shows that in “modern” times, it is a land of immigrants, from Eastern Europe, from Ireland, from Africa, from South East Asia; basically nobody from Antarctica. A casual glance at different parts of American history would also lead you to think that as each cultural group gets established it thinks of itself as more-or-less native, and isn’t necessarily so keen on sharing with the next wave.

That reluctance appears to be in the ascendent at the moment, at least rhetorically. The fury of the established population is oriented towards Mexicans who, quite unreasonably, believe that life might be better in the USA. They travel up in vast numbers, and steal jobs from hard working Americans. Where efforts have been made to stamp out their presence, the local sub-working class whites have flocked in droves to do the labouring work, so it’s not as if whole harvests have been adversely affected by lack of manpower to bring them in.

The current President has initiated a partial amnesty. This essentially allows Mexicans who were brought across to the USA as children to stay with relative safety against deportation. Of course, this is always a difficult political strategem because the illegal imigrant has no vote to counter the vote of those who believe they are being displaced.

On balance, the impression is that America is for Americans ™, but there are signs of hope – literally. These are the polylingual signs in public places and public services in some places. Here’s an example from Los Angeles:

IMG_1199And here’s an even more explicit example from San Francisco:

IMG_2767I liked these signs a lot, because they more than imply that while English might be the dominant language, it is not the only language. They are a statement acknowledging and enabling diversity. Now, it would be foolish of any immigrant to move to the USA and not learn English, but what these signs move toward is the idea that English is an addition, not a replacement. Maybe.

I was less enthusiastic about the street signs in Chinatown that were only in Mandarin, because that does not imply diversity, it implies a cordoned off and controlled area: English isn’t welcome there.

All of this reminds me of the most multi-cultural thing I’ve yet seen, and which I instinctively feel should be regarded as a model. In South Africa there are mini chat segments between each program, where a handful of people introduce the show and try and advocate for it. “Stay tuned, what’s coming up is great!”

Well, being the Rainbow Nation, I saw quite a few of these with an Afrikaner, an English speaker, and a handful of black faces. They would discuss the show together, each taking turns – and speaking only their own language. It was one conversation which moved comfortably through the major official languages. Just brilliant.

The USA isn’t there by any means, but with the increasing proportion of primarily Spanish speakers, it must be coming. They are, however, in this one tiny way, and in these limited places, a step ahead of us: when was the last time you saw a public sign in Maori?




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