Mea Culpa…Linguaphopes and Linguaphiles…

My best friend is from the Philippines. He’s been here since he was 7. As the second oldest of four brothers, he had lots of time to practice his English. You’d almost never know that he was brought up speaking Tagalog, except when he loses patience with someone and starts to get upset. Then the accent shines through.

His parents only spoke Tagalog when they got here, but they managed to raise 4 boys in the Bronx, all of whom have gone on to be doctors, pilots and money managers for one of the world’s largest banks.

My ex-husband is Puerto Rican. His mom was born on the island and came here as a young girl. Her parents spoke no English, but managed to raise a houseful of English speakers.

Neither my best friend, or his brothers…nor my ex-husband or his sisters speak their parents’ native languages.

Why? Well, the only reason I’ve ever heard was this: Their parents wanted their children to be ‘Americans’.

I was down on Mulberry Street the other day and there are some wonderfully gentrified areas, but if you look up, you will see lots of elderly Italians who have chosen not to move out of the neighborhood. Most of them speak little, if any English. That’s part of the reason they have stayed in their homes. It is their neighborhood and they feel comfortable. They work, pay taxes, have sent children to school – but they still choose their native language as their ‘hold’ on their heritage. I don’t begrudge them this, no more than I would begrudge Jews on the Lower East Side; Chinese in Chinatown, or my own family who chose Creole over English as a way to keep private some of the illegal things they did before the Civil Rights Movement took hold. Illegal things like:

Teach their children that voting was their right. You know. Criminal things.

I understand that people need to navigate society in a way that works for the majority of society, but Arizona has it all wrong. Why? Well, border states have border control issues. That’s where the problem starts. But instead of draconian laws, we could all look at employers who turn a blind eye. Not just to Mexicans, although they are bearing the brunt of our hatred now, but for any group of people we allow to work here illegally all in the name of holding on to a large, underpaid and under-protected workforce.   You know…those people who take care of your kids, your elderly parents, drive you around town, fix your computers, and cook your meals. You know:  your global neighbors.

Yes, we do speak English in America, we also speak many other languages, and sometimes, we do not speak at all. Something we should all look at isn’t what are we speaking…it’s what are we hearing.

When I was a kid, I used to be so grateful that I was born in the 1970s, during times of civil unrest, and civic upheaval. How wonderful that I wasn’t alive during the McCarthy years…how wonderful, indeed.

Well, except when you’re black and drive in New Jersey; Mexican and walk in Arizona, or gay and live almost anywhere. 







And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

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