Dec 27

Yo hablo diversity, I swear.

Posted by A Writer

 

If there's anything the holidays are great at, it's giving you the chance to reconnect with loved ones, friends and family…

…even if they're bigots.

Well, not bigots, exactly.  Actually my family is pretty cool by and large, compassionate, caring, and smart.  It's probably because my family is all those things that I find the dinner table exchanges that often happen a little tough to take.  Let's take an example, shall we?

Cousin:  The problem is that you don't have any standards any more.  Anyone can just do whatever they want.  I mean, the deli I go to every day for lunch, I can't even order a sandwich anymore.  They installed this system where you order your food through a computer thing.  You know why?

Me:  Why?

Cousin:  So they could hire people who can't speak English.

Me:  Uh…

Cousin:  That way they don't have to pay benefits.  And the immigrants there, they don't have to pay Social Security taxes or anything.

Me:  But that's not true–Social Security gets taken out of their checks before they get them.  And if they're illegal immigrants, they can't collect Social Security, because they can't register for it.

Cousin:  Oh.  [Pause]  Still, though, why can't they freaking speak English when they come here?

Me [getting up]:  Oh, look, the ham's ready!  

This is pretty much the extent of a conversation I had with a family member during Christmas, and on the drive home (after I got over being horrified) I started thinking about what would cause this kind of an attitude.  This is the kind of guy who would–in fact, who has–helped a total stranger whose car had rolled over get out, helped get his kid out, and stayed with him until the police arrived…and gave him his cell phone number in case he needed a place to stay that night.  And the kicker?  The guy was Hispanic, with a heavy Spanish accent.  

What the hell?

Assuming my cousin isn't a lunatic, or hasn't watched Sybil one too many times, there's got to be some explanation for this disconnect.  What causes him to be a private Samaritan and a public Know-Nothing?  Because it is that private/public split, I think, which is at the root of the illegal immigration debate which has reached such a fever pitch in this country.  Show me a Republican candidate who wants to fire off a new salvo against the country's porous borders, and the way immigrant labor is destroying our economic and moral authority in the world (I think this might have more to do with that second issue, but I digress), and I'll show you a Republican candidate who employs more than one of these on his staff.  The dirty little secret no one wants to discuss, of course, is that immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, currently makes up much of the workforce for those jobs which we'd rather forget need to get done.  It's fine to claim that American workers are just falling all over themselves to get these low-paying jobs, but the truth tells a different story: for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, the immigrant population (which has been largely excluded from other positions) has been more willing to take the jobs the rest of us haven't.  

But I don't think this really gets to the crux of the matter.  No, beyond economics, beyond resentment for perceived wrongs, beyond just plain old simple racism, I think what really underlies this issue is what my cousin was suggesting while passing the mashed potatoes and gravy: they don't speak English.  Now that was fine, I think, so long as it was a problem confined to the border areas; hell, we all like Tex-Mex food, right (sure, even my cousin)?  But when non-native English speakers began showing up in the Midwest, Northeast, and other areas previously considered bastions of, er, the "America for Americans" attitude, all of a sudden everyone became fascinated in keeping the English language safe for democracy, or something.

Now on one level I can't object to this phenomenon: I teach English in college, I'm a writer, this whole freaking blog is about "literature, language and life rewritten," so obviously I like English.  I even like the English.  And on a basic level, I do think it's important that people who plan to be here long term work to learn the English language during their time here, for their sakes as much as anyone else's.  But my objection to the "English NOW!" people is a much more complex one:

1.  English is an exceedingly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.  Its rules are constantly subject to exception, it's (see what I mean?  Smile) forever adopting and assimilating words, phrases, even rules from other languages, and it often doesn't read the way it's spoken…all of which makes it a lot harder to pick up than just sitting in a couple of classes or listening to a few tapes.  In other words, it takes time, far more time than we're generally willing to give.  Add that to the problem of having to culturally adapt to a new environment, which foreigners who come here are often much better at doing than we are when going elsewhere, and you can see that the "why can't they speak freaking English" theory isn't a particularly good one.  And speaking of the ugly American

2. …we really have very, very little right to say anything about anyone else's ability to adapt to us.  If you've ever traveled and been embarrassed by an American tourist loudly complaining about the lack of English speakers–in Greece–you'll understand what I mean.  As with other aspects of our foreign policy, we could use some serious humility lessons before we get all hot and bothered about having ATMs give options in Spanish.

3.  There is something particularly hypocritical, and mean-spirited, about the anti-immigrant, pro-English crowd who are themselves all immigrants or descended from same.  I'll leave for now the point that none of us are native Americans except for, well, Native Americans.  But what about the immigrants whose families themselves showed up here a hundred years or fewer ago?  What about the O'Malleys, the Santorellis, the Kaplans, the Beauchamps?  Do any of those people, whose fathers and grandfathers fought their way through the mistrust and suspicion of those who thought they were taking their jobs, stealing their women, speaking strange languages (hmm, why does this sound familiar?), have any right whatsoever to slam the country club door shut now?

An admittedly rhetorical question, with an admittedly clear answer: no.

Now none of this is to suggest that schools should drop English courses and just teach languages based upon regional conditions.  For many reasons, simplicity among them, it just makes sense that English should remain the dominant language of a country which still mostly speaks it.  But demanding that every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. must immediately drop everything and sit in language classes until they "get it" is not only unrealistic but ineffective and, frankly, hypocritical in the extreme.  And given America's sorry history of treating those it views to be different as very, very different, it would seem to me we ought to be especially careful handling the situation now.  In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through those bizarre holiday dinners the best we can.  If worse comes to worst, I guess we can all just talk sports instead.

Hey, at least we'll be getting to what really matters!

One Response to “Yo hablo diversity, I swear.”

  1. Hot Blog » Blog Archive » Yo hablo diversity, I swear. Says:

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