assimilate: (verb) to absorb (immigrants or a culturally distinct group) into the prevailing culture.
adapt: (verb) to make suitable to or fit for a specific use or situation.
Yesterday two incidents got me to thinking. In the first, a colleague and I happened to be at the same cafe having lunch and he showed me an article about the influx of immigrants into the Nashville area and the "English only" initiative that the city council had passed, only to have it vetoed by the mayor. The majority of the immigrants are Latino.
Print-shop worker John Taylor, a Nashville native, is worried that the new immigrants are not making enough of an effort to mingle, sticking to their own languages and settling in hermetic enclaves. To him, it feels like something the South has had enough of: segregation."I don't like the cordoning off of people," said Taylor, 34. "I'm not a big thumper for civil rights and what MLK did, but it was the right thing to do."
Then, at my church last night, we had a practice for the lectors who would be present at the upcoming Easter Vigil. A short - but tense - moment was felt when it was pointed out that, as in years past, the readings were largely in Spanish. The tension was not alleviated by the fact that the English-language lectors were present, but none of the Spanish-language lectors had come to the scheduled practice. The discussion was ended after it was pointed out that most of the people being received into the Church are Latinos and the decision had been made. Selah.
In my opinion, words have lost their meaning; hence why I chose to open this posting with two definitions. We often hear people say that immigrants should assimilate into the American culture. Well, that is nonsense because immigrants never had - to assimilate is akin to absorb, and absorbtion means that the character of what is absorbed is lost and merges into the whole. It's like a cake - a mixture of eggs, cream, and flour, but each component has lost its own character. Whether it is hearing El Grito on September 16th, marching in a parade behind pipes on March 17th, or dancing the tarantella for San Gennaro, immigrants have - and should - keep their culture intact. America is like a quilt and it would be a drab one without the colors we have.
That being said, I believe the Nashville initiative is the right choice because otherwise immigrants run the risk of becoming disenfranchised, and especially Latinos. The activists screaming for la raza only serve to keep their constituents down on the plantation. Instead, immigrants should strive to adapt - to make themselves suitable for a specific situation, and the situation is that to succeed in America, a person must make efforts to learn English and learn skills that make them a valuable commodity to an employer or to a customer. Instead, catering to the lowest common denominator - convincing a person that they need not make any effort to learn the predominant language but instead hold out for the infrastructure to change to meet their level - only serves to keep that person at the level at which they arrived here in the United States. And for many Latinos, that means poor, unskilled and unsophisticated, leaving them open and vulnerable.
What does that mean for an Easter Vigil service? I think that some thought should be given to rethinking the ethnic label of someone being received into the Church, since a Spanish surname does not a Spanish speaker make. And perhaps some thought should be given to the fact that many Latinos are bilingual. And maybe a phone call should be made to the lead person for the Spanish-speaking lectors to ask why they did not show up at practice - a community of faith should not be divided by language barriers, since we are all in this together. Have a bilingual service, but careful making assumptions based on ethnic demographics - all should feel welcome at the Easter Vigil.
A few years back, my parish offered Spanish lessons to members of the parish that were short-lived. Indeed, what a waste - a better use of resources would have been to provide ESL classes to the parishioners who spoke only Spanish so they could forge a better life in this country.