Liz Alarcón: When someone hears the national anthem at a naturalization ceremony or at the Olympics, the song is meant to instill a sense of pride in the United States, just like my parents felt watching me in that school play. Some of us may even well up with tears at the sound of that first note. And I mean, the song really is the definition of patriotism. During the war of 1812, Francis Scott Key, an American being held aboard a British ship during the battle of Fort McHenry, watched helplessly from the water as cannons destroyed the fort. After hours of uncertainty, the sight of the US flag still waving at dawn was his only signal that they hadn’t been defeated. That sight became inspiration for a powerful poem about a triumphant America. And that poem became The Star Spangled Banner. And that’s just part of the history. What you probably didn’t know is that there’s another version of the song, a Spanish version. It’s called “El Pendón Estrellado”. To tell that story, we have to fast forward about 130 years, to when the country was in the midst of another crisis.
Dr Frank Mora: The United States is in a deep, deep economic recession. Authoritarianism is spreading throughout Europe and elsewhere. And in Latin American, the Caribbean, there had been quite a bit for over a decade, a strong anti-American feelings about what the United States was doing, particularly in the Caribbean. And if we didn’t engage, then the Italian fascism and German fascism was going to increase their presence and their influence.
Liz Alarcón: The threat of fascism was enough of a motivator for the US to seek better relations with Central and South America. The new approach to the region was dubbed, the Good Neighbor Policy. Its goal: to emphasize cooperation and trade rather than military force to maintain stability in the hemisphere. To talk more about this, we’ve invited Dr. Frank Mora to the Pulso podcast. Dr. Mora is a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University and was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western hemisphere during president Barack Obama’s first term.
Dr Frank Mora: The good neighbor policy really began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR when he was inaugurated in March of 1933, he made clear reference to a shift in our policy, in our approach to Latin America and the Caribbean. And he called it the Good Neighbor. So there were three dimensions. One was a commitment that the United States would not interfere and that it would respect the sovereignty of Latin American countries and withdraw all US military forces occupying countries in the Western hemisphere. That was a clear signal of a dramatic shift in our relationship with Latin America. Two, there was an economic dimension. How do we recapture markets? Roosevelt began to sign a number of bilateral economic agreements that would give access to Cuban sugar, Nicaraguan coffee, et cetera, to US markets that had been closed off, as long as those countries opened their markets to our products because FDR understood that if we were going to get out of the depression, if we were going to stimulate our economy, we needed to expand the size of our market beyond the United States and into these countries. And third, there was the soft side, the cultural diplomacy as it was known. It wasn’t known as the soft power. Expanding the good word of American culture. Some people might interpret it as cultural imperialism, but you saw throughout the region, magazines and movies. The US embassy in Asunción, would take a movie produced for the purpose of Latin America, and they would travel from Asunción to the middle of the countryside, taking the film in an oxcart and then finding some white wall, and just throw the image of the movie onto the wall so that the campesinos could see American society and culture. The cultural component of this was about, how do we compete in the region? And how do we compete with the, uh, with the notion that our ideas that are values are better than the other guys? The idea was that we need to have a presence. We need to expand. We need to deepen our relationships in the region. And we’re going to do it economically, sure, but we’re going to do it through culture and establishing these relationships.
Liz Alarcón: And one of the ways FDR aimed to do this was by commissioning a version of the Star Spangled banner in Spanish. The lyrics had already been translated, but his administration saw an opportunity to use the anthem as a conduit for spreading US patriotism throughout Latin America. So in 1945, FDR made an open call of sorts, and many composers and artists submitted their Spanish interpretations of the iconic song. The winning lyrics were authored by Clotilde Arias, a Peruvian immigrant. Clotilde was a New York-based composer of advertising jingles for companies like AlkaSeltzer, Ford and Campbell’s Soup. She became a U.S. citizen just a few years before the open call, in 1942, about two decades after arriving in New York City from Iquitos, Peru, at the age of 22. Clotilde received nothing but praise for her lyrics. Music critics concluded that the translation stays true to the original meaning, while showcasing the poeticism of the Spanish language. Clotilde and her version of the anthem were definitely an extension of US diplomacy. The State Department used her version, which is the only official translation of the national anthem allowed to be sung, by the way, to send to Latin American consulates in the US, as well as to the countries themselves, in our pursuit of being Good Neighbors. But despite playing such an important role in US foreign policy with Latin America, “El Pendon Estrellado” has been swept under the rug of forgotten American History. That is, until Claudia Romo Edelman helped breathe new life into the anthem. We wouldn’t even know about this version of the anthem if it weren’t for Claudia’s organization, the We Are All Human Foundation, and their campaign, Hispanic Stars. Here’s Claudia talking about the first time she heard “El Pendon Estrellado”
Claudia Romo Edelman: It was so powerful. Every one of us started crying Hispanics or non Hispanics. It was so moving. Everybody felt like they, you know, like the cold sweat in your spine going through and saying like, this is going to be historic. This very awarded person, his name is Herb Pederson with Pepe Aguilar, who are really the parents of the Hispanic star, they came up with it. The National Anthem was used in 1912 by this Smithsonian museum. Uh, they sang it in a chorus, you know, in a small choir, there at the museum, but we wanted to bring it to the main stage.
Liz Alarcón: And I imagine picking someone to FILL that main stage was tough, but YOU chose someone special to perform a rendition worthy of this song, Puerto Rican artist Jeidimar Rijos.
Claudia Romo Edelman: Jeidimar is perfect. Jeidimar is perfect for so many reasons. Uh, number one, she won La Voz, the voice. So we needed that voice. So that by itself was perfect. Secondly, she’s afro Latina and, uh, um, she represents a lot of the diversity. Do you have the Latino community, the Hispanic community. And I think that it is very important for all of us to recognize that. And then with that voice of the angels, God, I mean, like she’s incredible. So she was our first I’m most important choice.
Jeidimar Rijos: Ever since I was little, my dream was always to sing the Anthem, the Star Spangled banner.
Liz Alarcón: Here’s Jeidimar herself, winner of the inaugural season of Telemundo’s La Voz, to tell us more about her journey to the anthem.
Jeidimar Rijos: The studio was beautiful. The people that work there were beautiful human beings. a beautiful atmosphere in the studio with all of us, just feeling the Anthem. So much of paying close attention to the lyrics, to the melody. I still can’t believe it. The fact that this could end up in history books maybe like 75 years from now, like it is going to be like, Today, I’m going to be singing the Anthem in Spanish. It was the first song by Jeidimar Rijos in 2020. It just blows my mind, but right. I just have to live the moment. It’s the first time that it’s being actually sang, uh, that it’s actually being taken into consideration and in such a beautiful way. I feel so proud to be like, Hey, we’re the first people to do it. And even the people that are not singing it. They still know, like I have them I’m doing this because of them because of the whole community. So they are also the singers of this. That’s why we’re so proud. And this is opening doors for other Latinos, so that in the future, they can do things like this, so radical.
Liz Alarcón: This song has different meanings for different people, there’s the pride element that we’ve been talking about, and then of course, it’s also the backdrop of protests against racism and injustice. Jeidimar, how do you reconcile the tension between what El Pendon Estrellado represents for Latinos and the anthem in the context of the protests the Black community is leading?
Jeidimar Rijos: I’m totally agreeing. I’m all for it, with the protest of black lives matter. Yes, we have to do it we’re not doing this because we want to it’s because we have to, this Anthem is almost like that this is a form of kneeling too. I read comments of people hating on it and being like, the lyrics are fine just as they are. So yes, this is us also. So this is a form of kneeling too, you know, I hope they blast this Spanish them everywhere, everywhere, because we want to be seen, we want to be known.
Liz Alarcón: There are moments when we get to truly take in how far we’ve come as a nation, listening to an Afro-Latina flawlessly singing “El Pendón Estrellado”, our national anthem, is one of them.