Speak English Correctly, Pilgrim

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Ben Fractenberg Ben Fractenberg is a multimedia journalist working for and living in Brooklyn.

As a Jewish New Yorker there are few rituals as satisfactory for me as going out for a late-morning bagel. Recently, however, the enjoyment of my routine was disrupted when I noticed the shirt of a fellow customer. It had the iconic picture of Uncle Sam pointing authoritatively, with the words "Speak English, Comprende?" written underneath. I was stewing over the racist undertones of this shirt -- if you are Hispanic and an immigrant you obviously must not speak English (!) -- when the young man began to discuss his order with his buddies: "I don't want no cream cheese." Note to all xenophobes: If you are going to wear a shirt demanding everyone in America know English, you probably should learn how to speak the language properly yourself. I thought about informing him of the double negative, but I couldn't bear to waste any more time before sinking my teeth into the heavenly combination of warm dough, cream cheese and lox.

The fact is we are all the progeny of immigrants. Even if your ancestors brought the pumpkin pie to the first Thanksgiving feast, you are descended from immigrants. And guess what, not all of them spoke perfect English. The horror! They still contributed to our country and many of their children went on to become important Americans. One non-native born person with a funny accent even became the Governor of California.

Here are some other émigrés who became influential citizens: Henry (the original Dick Cheney) Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Hakeem Olajuwon, Carlos Santana, Gene Simmons, Ang Lee, Martina Navratilova, Irving Berlin, and Joseph Pulitzer, to name a few. Each of these people worked hard to attain the American dream and they, in turn, made it easier for the future generations coming to this country in search of opportunity.

Most settlers to America, of course, do not reach the same level of fame and fortune as the above-mentioned group. But they still add mightily to our nation. James Smith, a senior economist at the Rand think tank in Santa Monica and lead author of the National Research Council's study "The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, notes that since 1980 all immigrants, including both undocumented and legal, have boosted GDP by $10 billion per year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanic-owned businesses created $222 billion dollars worth of revenue in 2002.

These are hard-working people with strong family values. Many of them speak at least two languages (we certainly cannot say the same for most native-born Americans). They want only the same things you and I and every other person in this land wants: the opportunity to attain success and freedom.

Next time I go out for bagels I'm going to wear a shirt that says 'Speak English Correctly, Pilgrim!' I'm also going to bring a couple copies of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to give away to grammar-challenged bigots. Then I'm going to Ellis Island, where my grandparents came after fleeing czarist Russia, to eat my bagel and think about how lucky those of us are who get to help make America a better place.