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When in America, speak.... Spanish?
The McDonald’s Spanish billboard ad towering over the busy intersection at West Yosemite Avenue and South Airport Way. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

That’s a very old adage that applies to a lot of things. But this is how I’ve always understood it. When I’m in someone’s home, I have to respect the people living in that house and abide by their rules. Even if I did not particularly like their decor, I do not have the right to impose my personal preferences. Even if, and especially when, I am invited to contribute my presence in that residence. I would expect no more and no less if the situation were reversed and it’s my own private home that is being opened to someone who has been invited to grace my home.

That was one of the first thoughts that came to mind one day last week when I happen to eyeball a prominent and large advertising billboard on the northeast corner of West Yosemite Avenue and South Airport Way. I guess the company is so well known its corporate office did not think it necessary to even put its name - to save space and ink perhaps - and that the golden arches would suffice. Of course, everybody knows the golden arches is McDonald’s, right? And that holds true even though I do not understand the foreign language used in the advertisement.

Actually, my initial reaction to the ad was: Wow! Am I America or did I just get transported to a country south of the border where Spanish is spoken? I also found myself upset and irritated that I did not understand the two main words on the billboard. After all, I have taken Spanish classes in high school and in college. I understood “nuevas.” And I had an inkling as to what “redefinida” might be in English. Redefined? Hmmm, that must be it. I should have consulted my English-Spanish dictionary prior to writing this column, right? Then I would have found out what “sabrosidad” means. Maybe the word has something to do with the gigantic stack of mouth-watering hamburger that dominates nearly one half of the billboard.

Why not in English
& Spanish on same ad?

I suddenly found myself indulging in a soliloquy. Is that kind of ad helping the non-English speaking people in this town? Perhaps, McDonald’s could have shot two birds with one stone, so to speak, by using both English and Spanish terms in the ad - with English the more prominent of the two because, after all, this is the United States where English is spoken. Then I would have known right away what “sabrosidad” means, and vice versa, any Spanish-speaking ad reader would have learned how to say “sabrosidad” in English. Continuing with my soliloquy as I was driving past the billboard, I argued that America, after all, is a capitalistic and democratic country. The food company clearly made a marketing decision that they deemed profitable for their product. So who am I to say or to dictate to them how they should run their marketing decisions?

“That’s a bunch of b----s!” was the strong reaction I got from an American-born and -raised Mantecan through whom I ran that argument when I tried to find out what others thought about the Spanish advertising billboard. This individual’s non-English-speaking European predecessors came to this great United States of America in the 1900s and immediately immersed their lives in the American culture including learning by heart their adopted country’s language without the benefit of ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. And that’s what every non-English-speaking immigrant coming to America should do, this diehard American citizen insisted. Then we wouldn’t have any need for bilingual or multilingual election ballots and other official government forms and leaflets such as those coming from the Department of Motor Vehicles and save the government money in the process, he added.

Different views about
McDonald’s billboard

To be honest, I probably would have felt uncomfortable if that McDonald’s billboard ran in Tagalog or Ilocano, the two major languages in the Philippines in which I happen to be fluent. But I grew up learning and speaking English from my educator parents, and developed an intense lifelong love affair with the English language early on which played a big part in my decision to quit my medical studies and major in English. The fact, too, is that Filipinos who come to this country are already familiar with, and are experts in, the English language which is prominently used in the Philippine educational system. Unlike the four-century subjugation of the Filipinos by the Spaniards during which time Spanish was just an elite language of the few, the less than five decades of American rule over the archipelago country from the defeat of the Spanish Armada at Manila Bay by the American fleet in 1898 to the end of World War II when the Philippines gained its independence, left a rich and indelible linguistics mark in the Filipinos’ heart. It’s easy to see why. The Americans made English not just the language of the elite few but the language of the people, the “common tao.” That was a powerful and liberating act.

Back to the Spanish McDonald’s billboard, one can argue that if everybody were to follow the old “when in Rome...” adage in its literal sense, then why didn’t the first Europeans do as the Native Americans did when they came to this New World? Perhaps, if they did, there would be no Manhattan as we know today. And perhaps, the United States of America would not have been born, and America would have remained a broad expanse of wilderness from sea to shining sea, and there would be no former vice president and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore arguing about global warming because of the decimation of lush forests.

This also brings to mind Emma Lazarus’ stirring and powerful immigration-themed poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty at New York Harbor. She didn’t write, “give me your language from your old country.” She wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....”

Everybody, of course, can have their own interpretation and reaction to the McDonald’s Spanish billboard. And that’s what makes this country great - the freedom to think, speak and act freely - and, at the same time, to suffer the consequences if any of those freedoms go beyond legal bounds.
To contact Rose Albano Risso, e-mail or call (209)249-3536.