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Word Garden Needs Weeding to Blossom

April 03, 2001|R. VENABLE de RODRIGUEZ | Rebecca Venable de Rodriguez designs and coordinates bilingual special projects for the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs

Language is like a wild garden. Some words spring up in popular jargon, then wilt or die altogether in meaning. Words like "black," "colored" and Hispanic come to mind. New ones take their places, like Latino, which begs explanation even among those who are. And no one is sure whether African American is hyphenated or even still acceptable. Should the NAACP change its name to the NAAAAP?

Things could become even more awkward if our language must absorb Herzegovinian Americans and other tongue twisters. God must bless dictionarists; for vocabulary, like any garden, needs taming to flourish anew. It is time to weed. The roots will only be healthier.

While unwieldy, at least African American and Hispanic American make sense as geographical references that trace heritage from the continent of Africa and from Spain (Espana, derived from Rome's Hispania). Any reference to race is invention. Not all Africans were black nor were all Europeans white. Slavery was a consequence of war for every losing side regardless of race. Ethnic cleansing, even if it were possible, would require a very long reach and leave behind a smaller, duller population.

While each new arrival struggles to define his identity in a new refuge, there comes a moment when sameness ought to be at least as important as differentness, especially once the setting no longer is new. Even the word "diversity" is endangered by its current use to politely describe "different colors and cultures." In this atmosphere of racial friction, perhaps the moment to concede similarity is now--now that the nightly newscast informs us that race is indistinguishable in DNA.

Another word, "multiculturalism," is a tired euphemism whose impact even for grant writers is worn out. Why do we use slipcover words for race? Other nations don't. If we all accept that we are human beings first, it would be safer and more productive to separate ourselves simply as "the good, the bad and the indifferent." Why do we send clear messages only in anger, complaint or contempt? Fortunately, slipcovers, like slang, come and go with the seasons.

In our free society, isn't it finally time to identify primarily as Americans, regardless of race or geographic origin? Tending roots is natural and even admirable until the roots run rampant and destroy the foundation of the house.

The "minority majority" is here to stay. The new census illustrates that we all are now even more mixed up than it was ever fashionable to admit. Perhaps the United Colors of Benneton stuck. If only history courses did, we would understand that racial fusion was always the natural outcome of conquest and that the Spanish conquest was only the last one of many.

The 2000 election in the United States has driven home what plurality means. So why don't we just adopt fresh words like "plural ethnia" or "ethnic pluria" into our vocabulary for diversity? Perhaps we are afraid that if we don't perpetuate divisions, we might just be absorbed into Latin America by default. The idea of an active reconquest of Mexican territory is in the air. But the reality of cultural re-absorption already renders it a foregone conclusion.

No doubt, maquiladoras backfired. Creating jobs on the border attracted a migration sorely disappointed with the accommodations. And now the United States can no more hold the Rio Grande than the Romans could the Rhine. The Germans were invited to work, not to stay. But they did. And without them there would be no Burgundy.

As for that word, "American," shouldn't the U.S. by now realize that it is one of the Americas? The United States unwittingly preempted the generic noun for everybody in the New World. While they too are Americans, people in Brazil are Brazilians, in Mexico, Mexicans, in Cuba, Cubans, in Canada, Canadians. Every country has a different name for its nationality. We don't.

In Spanish we are distinguished among Americans as estadounidienses (with no hyphen). We remain genuinely clueless to our neighbors' natural resentment while they have no choice but to assume arrogance or ignorance on our part.

To add insult to the injury that Columbus caused by mistaking the Caribbean islands for India, our mutual namesake, Amerigo Vespucci, was a fraudulent Florentine whose expeditions proved to be theater. So we've all been misnamed anyway.

Are we willing to open our borders to include the whole hemisphere in our song, "America the Beautiful"? After all, the word America wasn't written into the "Star Spangled Banner." Maybe our founding fathers were more global than we are; and they certainly didn't promise us just a rose garden.

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