Something interesting happened during Sunday’s Super Bowl.
It certainly wasn’t the game, which resulted in a blowout victory for the Seattle Seahawks over the Denver Broncos.
But what the game lacked in drama, a certain commercial and the reactions it elicited more than made up for it.
I saw the commercial that apparently set Twitter ablaze with comments moments after it aired. In fact, it’s the only commercial that I paused, rewound and asked my wife to come watch.
I immediately had two reactions to the ad, and I didn’t have to check Twitter to form the opinion. I thought the ad was beautiful, and I knew that many people would be angered by it.
Sure enough, the next day when somebody on the radio mentioned the “most controversial ad,” it was indeed the one I suspected.
It included no off-color jokes and didn’t use sex to sell the product.
Coca-Cola ran an ad where Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds sing parts of “America the Beautiful” in their native tongues. Most were also enjoying a Coke, usually surrounded by smiling family or friends.
What I saw in the commercial was people of widely different backgrounds who love America (and Coke, apparently). It didn’t bother me that the song was being sung in different languages. After all, they were all singing about the beauty of America while at the same time demonstrating one of the reasons why it is so beautiful: we are a diverse nation of immigrants. In fact, if you are not a full-blooded American Indian, then you, too, are descended from immigrants.
The problem many had with the commercial was the fact that much of the song was not sung in English. Some people made the assumption that the people represented in the commercial didn’t want to be real Americans because they couldn’t be bothered to learn our common language. Many saw the imagery as divisive rather than unifying.
The subject of language and assimilation reminded me of an editorial I read in the Wall Street Journal last year. It described how some opponents to immigration reform claimed that current immigrants are different from those in the past because they aren’t assimilating. But the editorial went on to show evidence the claim is not true.
The editorial pointed to a Pew study released last February that focused on the adult children of immigrants, particularly those of our two largest immigrant groups – Hispanics and Asians. When it comes to speaking English, only 28 percent of foreign-born Latinos said they could speak English “very well,” and 20 percent said they spoke no English at all.
The story was quite different with their children, however, as 85 percent of second-generation Latinos reported being able to speak English “very well” and another 8 percent speak English “well.”
Among first-generation Asian- Americans, 54 percent could speak English “very well” and 23 percent could speak English “well.”
When it comes to retaining the language of their familial country of origin, only 41 percent of second-generation Asian-Americans could speak it “well” or “very well.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial pointed out that this pattern follows the “three-generation model of linguistic assimilation that characterized European immigrants in the last century.”
The Pew study also found that roughly six in 10 adults in the second generation consider themselves to be a “typical American.” Yet that same group also had a strong sense of identity with their ancestral roots.
Perhaps most eye-opening is how the “American dream” is seen by second-generation immigrants compared to the overall U.S. population. About 78 percent of second-generation Hispanics and 72 percent of Asian Americans say most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard. Only 58 percent of the full U.S. population agrees with that statement.
This doesn’t sound like a group that is looking to destroy our national identity. It sounds like the group that is shaping it – just as it has since our nation’s founding.
Perhaps it’s good that the commercial has sparked a national conversation about immigrants and how we all communicate with each other. We can learn a lot from each other, if we’ll listen.
Brian Knox is special projects director for the Messenger.