An Anthem for Immigrant Rights

Bush Enters Anthem Fight on Language.By Jim Rutenberg (New York Times).

WASHINGTON, April 28—President Bush has never been shy about speaking Spanish in public, and he is known to love all kinds of music: country, folk and even Tex-Mex style rock. But one thing you will not find on his iPod: «Nuestro Himno,» the new Spanish version of the national anthem that was released on Friday as part of the growing immigrants’ rights movement.

Asked at a news briefing in the Rose Garden on Friday whether he believed the anthem would have the same value in Spanish as it did in English, Mr. Bush said flatly, «No, I don’t.»

«And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English,» Mr. Bush said. «And they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.»

Mr. Bush has tried to occupy a middle ground in the raging debate over immigration, supporting legislation that would grant immigrant workers temporary legal status and perhaps a path to citizenship, while pushing for immigrants to learn English also pressing for more steps to stop the flow of newcomers over the border. But his statement about the anthem was taken by members of both parties as a clear signal to conservatives that he stood with them on what many of them see as a clash between national identity and multiculturalism.

His remarks touched directly on the divide over the impact of immigrants on the nation’s culture, crystallized this time by the release of the Spanish version of the anthem, loosely translated and featuring Spanish-language stars like Gloria Trevi and Carlos Ponce.

Adam Kidron, chief executive of the label that released the new version of the anthem, Urban Box Office Records, said in a statement that the song helped those who did not speak English «to fully understand the character of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the American flag and the ideals of freedom that they represent.»

The song, which includes some departures from the original lyrics, was distributed to Spanish-language radio stations, many of which have been encouraging huge numbers of protesters to take to the streets in recent weeks. Another large action is scheduled for many cities on Monday, when some immigrant rights groups are calling for a nationwide economic boycott.

The anthem has fed into a backlash on talk radio, the Internet, cable television and Capitol Hill, with conservatives complaining that it was encouraging the very cultural balkanization that they have feared all along.

Mr. Bush’s comments were striking for a president who has embraced Spanish in his political life. Mr. Bush grew up in Midland, Tex., alongside Spanish-speaking children. As a politician who became governor and ran for president aiming to build a broader Republican coalition, he seized every chance to win over the fast-growing Hispanic population.

«He recognized that Texas was rapidly becoming a state that would have more Hispanics and more African-Americans than it would Anglos,» said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, who plans to introduce a resolution on Monday «to remind the country» why the national anthem should be always sung in English.

Mr. Bush took aim at Hispanics as an important voting bloc during the last two president campaigns. Mr. Bush has starred in his own Spanish-language advertising, and he was the first president to give his weekly radio address in Spanish. (The Spanish wire service Agencia EFE once said he spoke the language poorly, «but with great confidence.»)

Mr. Bush ventured into a little Spanish on Friday, using the Spanish pronunciation for the smugglers known as «coyotes» while outlining the need for stricter border enforcement.

Democrats and Republicans alike said Mr. Bush seemed to be making clear to conservatives — for the grassroots and for those in Congress opposing guest worker and citizenship provisions in the immigration legislation — that there were limits to his support for the pro-immigration agenda. Should the Senate pass immigration legislation this year that creates a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for some workers in the United States illegally — provisions that most conservatives oppose — Mr. Bush would play a main role in working on a deal with the House, which has passed a bill that addresses just border security.

«The president is working hard to try to pass the bill, and he’s thrown a bone to the right here,» said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a centrist group that focuses on Hispanic issues.

White House officials said Mr. Bush was not being politically calculating and has always believed that new immigrants should embrace the national language and culture.

Mr. Bush made his comments in a wide-ranging session with reporters in which he also said he opposed calls for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.

An Anthem’s Discordant Notes

Spanish Version of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ Draws Strong Reactions
By David Montgomery. Washington Post Staff Writer. Friday, April 28, 2006; A01

Oh say can you see — a la luz de la aurora?

The national anthem that once endured the radical transformation administered by Jimi Hendrix’s fuzzed and frantic Stratocaster now faces an artistic dare at least as extreme: translation into Spanish.

The new take is scheduled to hit the airwaves today. It’s called «Nuestro Himno» — «Our Anthem» — and it was recorded over the past week by Latin pop stars including Ivy Queen, Gloria Trevi, Carlos Ponce, Tito «El Bambino,» Olga Tañon and the group Aventura. Joining and singing in Spanish is Haitian American artist Wyclef Jean.

The different voices contribute lines the way 1985’s «We Are the World» was put together by an ensemble of stars. The national anthem’s familiar melody and structure are preserved, while the rhythms and instrumentation come straight out of Latin pop.

Can «The Star-Spangled Banner,» and the republic for which it stands, survive? Outrage over what’s being called «The Illegal Alien Anthem» is already building in the blogosphere and among conservative commentators.

Timed to debut the week Congress returned to debate immigration reform, with the country riven by the issue, «Nuestro Himno» is intended to be an anthem of solidarity for the movement that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to march peacefully for immigrant rights in Washington and cities across the country, says Adam Kidron, president of Urban Box Office, the New York-based entertainment company that launched the project.

«It’s the one thing everybody has in common, the aspiration to have a relationship with the United States . . . and also to express gratitude and patriotism to the United States for providing the opportunity,» says Kidron.

The song was being prepared for e-mailing as MP3 packages to scores of Latino radio stations and other media last night, and Kidron was calling for stations to play the song simultaneously at 7 Eastern time this evening.

However, the same advance buzz that drew singers to scramble for inclusion in the recording sessions this week in New York, Miami, Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has also spurred critics who say rendering the song in Spanish is a rejection of assimilation into the United States.

Even some movement supporters are puzzled by the use of Spanish.

«Even our Spanish media are saying, ‘Why are we doing this, what are you trying to do?’ » said Pedro Biaggi, the morning host with El Zol (99.1 FM), the most popular Hispanic radio station in the Washington area. «It’s not for us to be going around singing the national anthem in Spanish. . . . We don’t want to impose, we don’t own the place. . . . We want to be accepted.»

Still, Biaggi says he will play «Nuestro Himno» this morning if the song reaches the station in time. But he will talk about the language issue on the air and solicit listeners’ views. He says he accepts the producers’ explanation that the purpose is to spread the values of the anthem to a wider audience. He adds he will also play a version of «The Star-Spangled Banner» in English — as he aired the Whitney Houston version earlier this week, when the controversy was beginning to brew.

In the Spanish version, the translation of the first stanza is relatively faithful to the spirit of the original, though Kidron says the producers wanted to avoid references to bombs and rockets. Instead, there is «fierce combat.» The translation of the more obscure second stanza is almost a rewrite, with phrases such as «we are equal, we are brothers.»

An alternate version to be released next month includes a rap in English that never occurred to Francis Scott Key:

Let’s not start a war

With all these hard workers

They can’t help where they were born

«Nuestro Himno» is as fraught with controversial cultural messages as the psychedelic «Banner» Hendrix delivered at the height of the Vietnam War.

Pressed on what he was trying to say with his Woodstock performance in 1969, Hendrix replied (according to biographer Charles Cross), «We’re all Americans. . . . It was like ‘Go America!’ . . . We play it the way the air is in America today.»

Now the national anthem is being remade again according to the way the air is in America, and the people behind «Nuestro Himno» say the message once more is: We’re all Americans. It will be the lead track on an album about the immigrant experience called «Somos Americanos,» due for release May 16. One dollar from each sale will go to immigrant rights groups, including the National Capital Immigration Coalition, which organized the march on the Mall on April 10.

But critics including columnist Michelle Malkin, who coined «The Illegal Alien Anthem» nickname, say the rendition crosses a line that Hendrix never stepped over with his instrumental version. Transforming the musical idiom of «The Star-Spangled Banner» is one thing, argue the skeptics, but translating the words sends the opposite message: We are not Americans.

«I’m really appalled. . . . We are not a bilingual nation,» said George Taplin, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, part of a national countermovement that emphasizes border control and tougher enforcement, and objects to public funding for day-laborer sites. «When people are talking about becoming a part of this country, they should assimilate to the norm that’s already here,» Taplin said. «What we’re talking about here is a sovereign nation with our ideals and our national identity, and that [anthem] is one of the icons of our nation’s identity. I believe it should be in English as it was penned.»

Yet, even in English, 61 percent of adults don’t know all the words, a recent Harris poll found.

Appealing to such symbols of national identity to plug into their profound potency is how new movements compete for space within that identity. During the rally on the Mall, the immigrants and their supporters also waved thousands of American flags and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But they didn’t translate the pledge into Spanish. They said it in English.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, the general coordinator of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said there’s not a contradiction. The pledge was printed phonetically for Spanish speakers, and many reciting the sounds may not have understood the meaning. Putting the anthem in Spanish is a way to relay the meaning to people who haven’t learned English yet, Ruiz said.

«It’s part of the process to learn English,» not a rejection of English, he said.

While critics sketch a nightmare scenario of a Canada-like land with an anthem sung in two languages, immigrant rights advocates say they agree learning English is essential. Studies of immigrant families suggest the process is inevitable: Eighty-two percent to 90 percent of the children of immigrants prefer English.

«The first step to understanding something is to understand it in the language you understand, and then you can understand it in another language,» said Leo Chavez, director of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California at Irvine. «What this song represents at this moment is a communal shout, that the dream of America, which is represented by the song, is their dream, too.»

Since its origins as the melody to an English drinking song called «To Anacreon in Heaven,» circa 1780, «The Star-Spangled Banner» has had a long, strange trip. Key wrote the poem after watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814. It became the national anthem in 1931.

At least 389 versions have been recorded, according to, a quick reference used by musicologists to get a sense of what’s on the market. Now that Hendrix’s «Banner» has mellowed into classic rock, it’s hard to imagine that once some considered it disrespectful. The other recordings embrace a vast musical universe: from Duke Ellington to Dolly Parton to Tiny Tim. But musicologists cannot name another foreign-language version.

«America is a pluralistic society, but the anthem is a way that we can express our unity. If that’s done in a different language, that doesn’t seem to me personally to be a bad thing,» said Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education, which is leading a National Anthem Project to highlight the song and the school bands that play it in every style, from mariachi to steel drum.

«I assume the intent is one of making a statement about ‘we are a part of this nation,’ and those are wonderful sentiments and a noble intent,» said Dan Sheehy, director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Benigno «Benny» Layton wonders. He’s the leader of Los Hermanos Layton, a band of conjunto- and Tejano-style musicians in Elsa, Tex., 22 miles from Mexico. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he recorded a traditional conjunto version of «The Star-Spangled Banner.» It was instrumental.

«I’m a second-generation American,» Layton said. «I love my country, and I love my [Mexican musical] heritage, and I try to keep it alive. But some things are sacred that you don’t do. And translating the national anthem is one of them.»

Staff writer Richard Harrington contributed to this report.

Himno: letra y música.