The dust-up over the Coke commercial from the Super Bowl — the one that features “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages — has made me think about growing up in Cleveland.
The city is home to many ethnic groups. I lived in a neighborhood near what today is called Slavic Village. Back then, it consisted largely of immigrants and their children and grandchildren. They brought their foods, their customs and their yearning for freedom with them.
Each neighborhood had its own church, its own family-owned restaurant and bakery, its own family-run tavern. The houses were built tightly together and didn’t have air conditioning back then, so on the walk home from church each Sunday you could hear polkas playing on the radios and identity foods by familiar smells emanating from wide-open kitchen windows.
The neighborhoods were living definitions of the “melting pot” we read about in our history classes. And the pot contained so many different foods. Each ethnic group had its own sausage, ranging from Polish kielbasa to Italian sausage to mettwurst and bratwurst and kishke and so on. There were pierogies and chicken paprikash and potato pancakes and fried cabbage with noodles. And we won’t even get started on the many amazing desserts.
After Vatican II loosened restrictions on the Catholic mass, you could go to a different neighborhood and hear it in a different language. Over at St. Stanislaus, there was a mass in Polish. One neighborhood over, you could worship in a different language. Nobody thought anything of it — doesn’t God understand all languages?
Church wasn’t the only place where a different language was spoken. Some immigrants learned just enough English to get by, but would speak their accustomed language much of the time. It was fun to learn words from the different languages — especially ones your parents didn’t want you to know — while growing up.
If anyone had told these immigrant families they had to give up their customs in order to become more American, their response — in their own language — would be something along the lines of: Wait, what? That’s not America.
To them, great diversity was a sign of great freedom. And they celebrated it every time they said something in their familiar language or ate their favorite sausage.
Of course, they were far from perfect at this accept-our-differences thing. One ethnic group might dislike another or make jokes about another. You could find racism and sexism in all the neighborhoods. They didn’t always practice what they preached.
And maybe that’s where the Coke commercial touches on a point. We say we appreciate freedom, but we don’t always. We talk about liberty and justice for all, when sometimes what we really mean is for all those who are willing to change and become just like us.
And maybe that’s the question: Do we see great diversity as a sign of great freedom? Do we try to impose uniformity, or do we work to make sure freedom applies uniformly to all?
Something to consider over a slice of apple strudel.