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July 11, 2006

fear of a latino planet

I’ve become indelibly associated with, “Nuestro Himno”, a gorgeous and respectful recording of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, performed by an array of all-stars, like Wycleff, Pitbull, Reik, Kalimba, Patrulla 81, Olga Tanon, Voz a Voz, P-Star and others [hear it at http://www.somos-americanos.com]

We recorded the anthem in Spanish to protest the inhumane and counter-economic route that the immigrant haters such as the pompous buffoon, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., are taking, and to expose their blind bigotry. Our recording, though respectful and patriotic, is as much a protest song as “Give Peace a Chance”.

What is most ludicrous to me about the debate is that immigration is demand driven – cheap, unprotected, easy-to-exploit labor, empowers our fabulous lives. Where would we be without south of the border friends who will cook, clean, trim, cure, nurse; in fact do anything for us as long as it turns their sweat into Pesos. In case you cannot hear me, I am insisting that the ‘undocumented immigrants’ have been invited to America to serve us, and that the border is porous only because we choose it to be so.

Nuestro Himno’s release touched raw, reactionary nerve and provoked a typically unthinking Bush response. Having wasted away his slender political capital on ill-considered foreign adventures, GW used a Rose Garden press conference to blabber on about how the Star Spangled Banner should always and forever be sung in English.

Minimal due diligence would have uncovered that the national anthem had been sung in Spanish at one or more of GW’s own Texas pep rallies, as the prospective Governor strove to ‘lasso’ in the Latino vote. Further furrowing may have discovered the four translations of the anthem into Spanish commissioned by the State Department, that are posted on the departments own website. Digging deeper still, Administration lackeys would have become aware of a 1919 Carnegie Hall performance of the anthem (in Italian) by the Sistine Singers that brought New York to its feet. Indeed, the anthem has been performed in French, Hebrew, German, Portuguese and Polish by previous generations of immigrants without any measurable harm to the body patriotic. As Secretary of State, Condoleezza “Blahnik” Rice said on CBS’ Face The Nation:

“I've heard the national anthem done in rap versions, country versions, classical versions. The individualization of the American national anthem is quite under way. From my point of view, people expressing themselves as wanting to be Americans is a good thing.”

A couple of weeks ago, a whole lot of media attention was given to Geno’s – a tacky Philadelphia landmark bragging signs that state that customers must order their world-famous cheese steaks in English, if they want to be served at all. News reports tended to focus on Gino himself, a bombastic, wickedly-ignorant, intolerance peddler with a slanted self-satisfied smile, who seems to believe that his Italian forefathers learned English on the boat, rather than slowly over many generations.

At the same time the Pennsylvania House of Representatives joined the “English is our Official Language” bandwagon, disrespecting the memory of the (immigrant) Founding Fathers who had come together in Philadelphia, a couple of centuries earlier, to declare America’s independence with the words:

“That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Needless to say, there was no gotta-speak-English qualifier.

Already disgusted by the torrent of abusive, threatening Emails we have gotten since the release of the Anthem (invariably written in English so poor you pity the author’s lack of elementary education), and provoked by Geno’s bigotry, we decided to protest Philadelphia’s descent from freedom loving radicalism to intolerance, by performing Nuestro Himno outside Geno’s on Independence Day.

I flew into Philadelphia International Airport from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on July 4th, by way of New York. A display tribute to the legendary Philadelphia International producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff along the concourse between the gates and the terminal building was a forceful reminder of the city’s extraordinarily musical heritage.

Ridiculous humidity, made more so by suffocating black clouds seemingly ready to burst without further provocation, added to the tension of the day. The Salvadorian cabbie that picked me up from the airport, had his radio tuned to Le Super 1360am, WNJC, our partner station, which was busy blasting news of our event, to be held at La Lupe, a Mexican restaurant adjacent to Geno’s on South 9th Street. Gabriel and Guadalupe Bravo, La Lupe’s very elegant ant cultured owners had gotten tired of Geno’s bellicose racism and were happy to support our modest counter-attack.

South 9th street was decked out for Independence Day in smart red, white, and blue threads. The Bands playing on the stage outside Geno’s reflected the - "lets freeze time before the 60’s ruined the universe" - attitude of the boss and his establishment - Rock Around The Clock was as cutting edge as the day’s entertainment got...

There was an uneasy tension between our performance and our audience and the rather geriatric affair taking place next door. It could have played out in many different ways. However, just as the snarl exchange between the two peoples threatened to become something more serious, the day took an extraordinary and hopeful turn; as the clouds finally dumped their heavy load, members of the sound crew working with Geno cameover to us to praise Voz a Voz (for their sweet harmonies and vocal prowess) making it absolutely clear that Geno did not reflect their attitudes or those of their community.

It was one of those moments that instills belief in humanity and brings a quiet weep to one's eyes. I trotted down the block light footed. On the corner was a dilapidated convenience store. Attached to its door was a crude sign. The sign listed a bunch of things the owners didn’t want in his store – number 5 on the list was any question in Spanish.

In 1990, Public Enemy released the classic Album “Fear of a Black Planet”. Here in Philadelphia, on South 9th street, in what has become a border town, fear of a black planet has been replaced by a fear of a Latino America… The South 9th street I visited felt unpleasently like Johannesburg in the final years of apartheid.

That is a path we cannot allow any place to take.


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