Last month, I attended an event commemorating the 250th anniversary of what is considered the birth of Cajun culture in Louisiana.
Being mostly a dullard, I was lost when one participant spoke in French; I couldn’t understand a word. On a wall nearby, a projector displayed a Latin title, “Ave Maris Stella.” Then, from the corner of my eye, I noticed an older gentleman take off his baseball cap and hold it to his heart as the woman continued, in French.
“Ave Maris Stella” (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) is the Acadian national anthem. The French version includes a poignant line “Acadie ma patrie” — as best I can tell, it rhymes — meaning “Acadia my homeland.”
The song, and the man who took off his hat for it, made me wonder how this all fits into the uproar over “hyphenated Americans” and “nonassimilation.”
It is not a new controversy. Theodore Roosevelt made at least two post-presidential speeches on the subject in 1915 and 1916.
“I stand against every form of hyphenated Americanism,” he said.
The opposition to the hyphen ratcheted up again in the late 1960s, after many Americans decided that — like “colored” and “Negro” before them — “black” had outlived its usefulness and should be replaced by “Afro-American” or “African-American.”
In 1973, ultra-American John Wayne responded, recording “The Hyphen,” a poem that objected to its use.
The complaints have arisen again in recent years, in part because of the large influx of Latinos through the U.S. southern border. Bilingual signs in stores, business phones that greet you with the message to press 8 if you’d prefer to transact in Spanish and other indications of Latino presence in the United States have infuriated some people.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent London speech attracted new attention to the controversy. He chastised “the American left” for thinking, he claimed, that “it is unenlightened, discriminatory and even racist to expect immigrants to endorse and assimilate into the culture in their new country.”
But what does all that mean in the real world? Cajuns are a group of people who have, for the most part, preserved the use of French in Louisiana at a time when some people go into a fit when they see government documents printed in more than one language. Even among Cajuns who know little French, many speak English with a cadence that is unique. No one would say they’re any less American because of that, would they?
The recent impatience over assimilation ignores some basic facts of American history. As millions came into the United States from other countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for them to cluster into their own neighborhoods, create mutual aid societies and conduct business and print newspapers in their native language. Many cities had their own Chinatown or Little Italy.
Most of those immigrant groups eventually learned English and discarded their native language. My family tree is solidly though not exclusively Italian, and I probably heard only five or six Italian words around the house growing up. Assimilation had wiped out most of my family’s Italian character before I was born.
To a greater or lesser extent, other immigrant groups in the United States have had the same experience as they melted into American society. There’s no reason to think the same won’t happen with the newer immigrants.
Or maybe, if we’re lucky, the assimilation won’t be as fast as it has been in the past. Maybe, like the Cajuns, they’ll hold jealously onto some parts of their culture, and we — Americans, hyphenated and unhyphenated — will be enriched by our exposure to it.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.