I am not a great political activist, I admit. Since I grew up in Berkeley, Protest Capital of The World, this is confusing. My mom, a Mexican American, who was the first in her family to go to college, worked for Cesar Chavez. She was not a first generation Mexican American only because my grandparents were from Canutillo, Texas and, as she liked to say, “the border crossed them.” I don’t know what The Man Who Occupies The White House would say about Mexicans on the American side of the border, but while I miss my mother, I am glad she is not here to hear it.
My mom enrolled me in the Spanish bilingual program in Berkeley schools, which put me in classes with mostly immigrant children, most from Mexico. I also spent my early mornings and evenings with Mexican families who babysat me. One family consisted of ten members who lived in a one bedroom apartment. The father worked as a waiter at a seafood restaurant. I was only 3 or 4 and needed things like juice or help using the bathroom. So I learned to speak Spanish fluently in order to survive and get my needs met. Like many first generations Mexicans, my mother didn’t speak Spanish to her parents. She had a slight English accent. When I speak Spanish, however, I sound like Mexican immigrant.
As I grew older, and didn’t need to speak Spanish to survive, I stopped speaking it and it became rusty. When I travel to a Spanish speaking country my fluency comes back. A few years ago I worked at Herbalife corporate headquarters, a mostly Spanish speaking company, and I began to speak to the cooks in the cafeteria. I realized that I am a different person when I speak Spanish. A different part of my personality comes out. I am not sure how to describe it, but one who is probably more chill, relaxed, grounded and non-judgmental. Probably the part of me that stopped growing when I turned 12 or 13 and started hanging out with White Kids from the hills of Berkeley. I wanted to assimilate, and I guess, be white.
But I got over that.
In the last ten years, I have begun to speak Spanish to people providing a service, the guys at the car wash, my mechanic, or, more recently, the guys my building manager sent over to (miraculously) fix the cracks in the ceiling and walls. When I said to them, “Si hablo espanol” they looked at me as if butterflies had flown out of my mouth. Clearly, this is not a common occurrence in Los Angeles, a city with an almost 50% Latino population. Even though I am 1/2 Mexican (and 1/2 half angry), I look like a White Girl. White women don’t go around speaking Spanish to the workers, let alone in a fluent Mexican immigrant accent. It’s humbling to realize the effect that something so little, that requires so little energy, like saying a few words in a different language, can have on a person.
What does it mean to speak the language as the person doing a service for you in this country? It’s an extension, a show of respect. You are making their (and your own) life easier. Quite often it results in excellent work, a great interaction, and for me, a feeling of connection. I never spoke English because I thought it made me superior, but there is something inherently superior about the native language of any western country. This is a racist world.
I have met none, if very few, Latino immigrants who do not work seven days a week. The nurse who helped me in the hospital last week works seven days a week, the men who came and made new slip covers for my couch work seven days a week, my friend Francisco at Peet’s work seven days a week. While I have no hard data on this (and I doubt any exists) I expect that the vast majority of immigrants do as well. Most work tirelessly and with gratitude. The way people live in Los Angeles would not be possible without the service of underpaid immigrants extend themselves beyond the traditional reaches of a 40-hour work week. This is often not sitting in an office work. This is not scrolling through Facebook on big “mental” breaks kind of work. This is labor; building things, creating things, like gardens, and clean bathrooms, keeping children fed and alive. I am often tired, but I do not work that hard.
Because I grew up in a family with an immigrant mentality and was cared for and raised by Mexican immigrants, I love Mexican people. Not everyone has that experience to draw from. But most white and middle-to-upper class people in Los Angeles, do benefit from the immense work ethic of the immigrant Spanish speaking population who make our tacos, care for your children, pick up your empty micro-brewed overpriced beer glass, clean your cars in the hot sun, and pick your oranges in the even hotter Central Californian sun. I respect Mexican immigrants. It goes without saying, light years more than the leaders of today.
What I want to suggest is that next time you interact work with a native Spanish speaker maybe try saying “Hola.” Practice your Spanish. Surely, you know a few words. It’s not going to change the behavior of The Man Who Occupies The White House. But it will change the world, or one person’s day.