Government & Constitution

National Museum of American History immortalizes an immigrant musician

National Museum of American History immortalizes an immigrant musician

The National Museum of American History previewed on Sept. 27 a new exhibition commemorating the singular contribution Peruvian immigrant Clotilde Arias made to the American heritage of reverence for the flag.

“I’ve waited for this day for about 3 years,” said Marvette Perez, curator of “Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias,” during her remarks at the breakfast event.

Arias immigrated from Iquitos, Peru to New York City in 1923 at the age of 22 eventually wrote the official Spanish-language translation of the national anthem. It is called El Pendón Estrellado, which word-for-word means “the Star-Spangled Banner,” she said.

The U.S. Department of State commissioned El Pendón Estrellado from Arias in 1945, she said.

“You have to contextualize it at the time. There were political reasons to do it,” Perez said. “It was during the war. There were fears during the Second World War that some countries in Latin America were gonna go with the Nazis.”

Commissioning the Spanish translation was one component of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, she said.

Like its title, Arias’ rendition of the anthem is quite faithful to the original, she said.

Arias’ son, Roger, said, “I remember her struggling with that. She’d sit at the piano and see if she could even change the music a little, but she wouldn’t. She said no, no.” Roger Arias was a teen when his mother composed El Pendón Estrellado.

“But I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know that what she was doing was so important. I said, ‘Oh, you’re doing The Star-Spangled Banner in Spanish? Well, we sing it in English in school,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was really an honor with her. She treated it that way.”

When asked what he thought of the exhibit, he said, “Well, it’s amazing.”

Juan Montoya, second secretary at the Embassy of Peru, said people in Peru do not know much about Arias’ role in American history.

“This is a small case,” he said. “But from the way I see it, it’s very important to make bonds.”

“When you see a lot of work, a lot of dedication, this represents the bond, in this case with Peru, but it’s the bonds you should try to build with every other nation,” he said.

Cara Rogers-Gonzalez, soloist from the chamber choir Coral Cantigas who performed both versions of the song a capella at the preview on Thursday, said, “To me, it’s amazing. Singing the national anthem in Spanish is the symbol of the sense of inclusion on which this country was founded.”

Rogers-Gonzalez’s ancestors came to the United States on the Mayflower and her husband’s parents are Cuban immigrants, she said.

“I feel like the reason they came here was to be included and to be free to be themselves,” she said of her ancestors.

El Pendon Estrellado marks a new era of inclusion in American society, she said.

Perez, the exhibition’s curator, said of the Spanish translation, “I don’t know what to say about the legacy because nobody knows about it. This is why we’re doing this. So hopefully the people will learn and the legacy will begin.”

The flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to the original Star-Spangled Banner is on ongoing display at the museum in an exhibit called “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem.”

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