Happy American Independence Day(?) Another look at the power of language
Equality – Justice – Freedom
Throughout American history, presidents have made unforgettable speeches and official statements about their nation’s values. As their country’s leaders, these presidents (along with their administrations) have taken great strides to craft speeches that they believe embody the very essence of the collective American beliefs, shape the country’s culture, and showcase a strong national identity. Some of these values include equality, justice, and freedom – and some focus on how America, as a nation, view immigrants and treat children.
We are all in the language industry, promoting effective communication among ourselves and our clients on a local and an international level. Effective communication is about finding connections with people of different backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures. It is about choosing our words very carefully and crafting messages with the intent to build bridges and strengthen partnerships. As we have said before and are likely to repeat, words do matter and can have a lasting effect – either positive or negative – on our nation’s image and on a people’s well-being at home and afar.
In light of recent events in the current political climate, perhaps this July 4th, Americans should not only focus on their nation’s values but on how the current president’s words affect the reality of those who arrive at America’s metaphorical shores.
That ugly little word, immigrant
In 1776, the United States of America earned independence from Great Britain through blood, sweat, and tears. There was a great pride in having earned this freedom to practice religion, own land, and work toward financial stability, but not everyone was granted these gifts.
Native Americans, who had already inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years, now found their lives and the lives of their families threatened. Africans were brought to this land against their will and became enslaved. In fact, it is estimated that between the 17th and 19th centuries, as many as 700,000 Africans were brought here against their will, stripped of their loved ones, many of whom they never saw again.
There were indentured servants who arrived from England and Ireland as skilled and unskilled laborers to handle the enormous work of building a new nation. Some willingly signed an indentured-servitude agreement in exchange for the voyage, room, board, and food, but some came against their will. No, American history hasn’t necessarily always been built on the values of Equality, Justice, and Freedom, but, thanks in large part to the nation’s ever-evolving consciousness, its multicultural fabric, its compassion, and its desire to elevate the human condition, the United States has seen improvement, albeit a little slower than some would have otherwise liked to see.
Chronology of presidential words about immigrants, 1800s to present day
Something has gone terribly wrong in the United States. Somewhere in the last two years, the presidential tone of compassion – of promoting a nation of equality, justice, and freedom – has shifted into a downward spiral. We see that this increased xenophobia and rampant nationalism is also affecting countries in Europe and around the world, but as the United States celebrates the anniversary of their independence, we will leave global concerns for another discussion and focus rather on the current issues facing Americans. Somehow, the United States is back to that dirty little word, immigrant. We’re back to the anti-immigrant Know Nothings of the 1850s. How can we have come so far to end up back here?
The power of language
On Memorial Day, we wrote about how the power of language can work to either elevate the human condition or leave it bankrupt. Words do matter and when those words are spoken by leaders of powerful nations, the consequences can be monumental.
The power of language is undeniably potent. Words can be used to inspire, energize, mobilize, and bring about economic and social progress. But words can also work to demean, degrade, and disgrace a country and its people. When derogatory words are used to refer to immigrants, they work to dehumanize the most vulnerable and those most in need. And when those words are uttered out of the mouth of American presidents, their blows are felt around the globe almost instantly, leaving long-lasting and devastating effects for all.
Below, are statements made about immigrants by the current president of the United States and by his predecessor, Barack Obama. After reading each passage, we ask that you share with us, in your own words, how this rhetoric makes you feel.
|My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught the that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.||The Mexican legal system is corrupt, as is much of Mexico. Pay me the money that is owed me now – and stop sending criminals over our border… Mexico’s court system [is] corrupt. I want nothing to do with Mexico other than to build an impenetrable WALL and stop them from ripping off U.S… When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [you]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”|
The vast majority of people who are being either vilified and traumatized by the current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy are mothers, fathers, and children. They have traveled in some instances, a thousand miles to escape extreme poverty, crime, and violence. They came with their hands outreached, seeking asylum as refugees in need of help. And although the policy which cruelly separated children from their parents was abruptly stopped by Executive Order on June 20th, its damage has already taken a toll and families continue to be housed in internment camps, albeit together.
In its wake however, the zero-tolerance policy has displaced more than 2,300 children and has moved them to facilities in approximately 17 states around the country, thousands of miles from their parents. For most of these children, their parents remain in custody. For others, their parents have been deported. What remains chillingly unclear, is whether or not there is any plan in place to reunite these families. Let’s not forget that some children are as young as 9 months old. Let that sink in.
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A day to reflect
Many of us at Nimdzi are American citizens. On this July 4th, as the country celebrates independence, we reflect on our roles both as American citizens and as citizens of the world. How do we use our words? How does our own language impact on those who listen to us, especially on the most vulnerable, our children? Do we want our own words and our own language to elevate – or demoralize – the human spirit?
Calling all translators interpreters, and volunteers
Looking to help? RAICES, the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services is a nonprofit organization that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refuges in Central and South Texas. They are asking for help from anyone who can volunteer and are in specific need of volunteers with specialized language skills including interpreters and translators. In addition to needing those who speak Spanish, RAICES is in need of those who can speak Zapotec, Nahua, Ma’am, Quich’e, Maya, Mixe, and Mixtecs. Reach out to RAICES and support their efforts in reuniting children with their families and defending their constitutional rights.
We wish you all a Happy, Safe, and Reflective “Independence” Day.
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