America Was Never A Melting Pot

I continually receive comments from people who decry the fact that Spanish or Chinese or some other language is spoken rather than English. It is their assumption that in past American history, immigrants arrived and quickly adopted the English language. This view is not factual. In my childhood in the Bronx, New York, in the 1930s, one could walk for miles in Little Italy and hear as much Italian as English while men and women sat on chairs reading their Italian newspapers. In my east European Jewish neighborhoods, Yiddish was as common as English and each day, you could purchase either one of three Yiddish language newspapers. There were Polish, German, Hungarian, etc… neighborhoods in which foreign languages were as common as English.

If you were in New York City –or Chicago or Philadelphia or Boston– there were foreign language theater groups where plays were NOT in English. My mother took me to see Yiddish language theater from which famous actors like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni were once stars. An ongoing issue in many Catholic churches in America was the presence of Irish priests and nuns who were not comfortable in Polish or Hungarian or Italian. People wanted priests who spoke THEIR native language, not English. Of course, over time most individuals learned English, but this does not translate into giving up their native language.

It is rather ironic to listen to attacks on Chinese or Hispanic people given that during World War II, a benefit to the American armed forces was having thousands of soldiers who could speak multiple languages–Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Germany–did interrogation work. Unfortunately, today, we do not take advantage of Arabic speaking people due to so-called “security issues.” The bottom line is that America NEVER was a Melting Pot in the manner which many modern day Americans believe existed. There was always diversity, there were always people who did not wish to abandon their native languages.

I welcome language and cultural diversity. The presence of people with non-English language strengthens American society. By the way, we forget the presence of so many foreign scientists who played key roles in development of the atomic bomb during World War II. It would be beneficial for those who attack immigrants and their language to actually study American history. In the 1840s, the complaint was that Irish immigrants could not speak English.

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