Friday, September 21, 2012

A Little Spanish Goes a Long Way

An E.F. Hutton moment at the Golden Corral

A couple of years ago, my family converged upon a Golden Corral restaurant in southeastern Orlando along south Semoran Boulevard for dinner. My father was a depression era child and is always concerned about getting enough to eat (and always for a minimal price, mind you). There is inevitably plenty for vegetarians to eat there so it’s in many ways a perfect place for family dinners.

The strip on Semoran south of Colonial Drive (SR 50) where the Golden Corral is located is largely Latino these days. While I was aware of that, it’s not something that I think much about as I drive down the highway alternatively reading storefronts and billboards in English and Spanish. One day my Dad was in the car and I was commenting on a billboard for lawyers when he said, “Where did you see that?” And I suddenly realized that after all the years I’d spent in Latin America, Spanish billboards just seemed pretty routine to me. But not to those who live in small towns outside the urban centers here in Florida, like my Dad, for whom Spanish is not so much a constant as the evidence of foreign cultures.

In the restaurant that evening, my brother’s middle kid, who is known for making wise acre remarks, was telling us about his troubles in his International Baccalaureate program at his high school. Seems his Spanish class was his major downfall. Given my love of Latin America, I was confused: “What is it about the language that you find so difficult?” And to my astonishment, he replied, “It’s the language of the maids and the janitors. Why would I want to learn that?”

Like the old E.F. Hutton commercials where everyone suddenly becomes quiet, listening in hopes of hearing the wisdom of a stock broker, it was as if time suddenly stood still. Everyone at the table with us suddenly grew silent. And I began to look around at the nearby tables, overflowing with loud, joyous Latino families, wondering who had heard that comment.

The Sheer Pragmatism of Becoming Multilingual

In all honesty, it was hard for me to contain my anger at that moment. I love all of my nephews and my one beloved niece dearly. But this comment hit at another major love in my life – Latin America and its culture. It also was made in a context which rendered the comment not only philistine in its stupidity but potentially dangerous.

“Sport, I suggest you look around yourself. Do you notice that we English speakers are the minority in this place tonight? Might you consider that comment is more than a little ill-advised under the circumstances?”

And then I poured it on: “Who are you that you think you are too good to learn this language, anyway? Does it occur to you that your father speaks Spanish, your uncle and your aunt speak Spanish? Even your brother speaks Spanish. What makes you so good that you can’t learn it as well?”

By then I was cooled down enough to add the practical reason that might speak to my periodically bone-headed nephew: “Look, honey, if you’re going to live in Florida, you simply need to learn Spanish, period. You don’t have to necessarily embrace all things Latin. But Spanish is a survival skill in this state, whatever you might think about that. And, to be honest, you probably should learn some French as well since that’s the third most spoken language in this state these days.”

In all honesty, I doubt much of that penetrated the cranium of a 19 year old who knows everything there is to know about everything, having been there myself. But the truth of my own words came back to me this day in a way totally unexpected.

Indispensable Information – en Español

I took my car to Sears Auto this morning to have the tires balanced. As it turns out they all needed replacement. Big surprise, about $630 worth! But given my plans to not buy another car, it’s an investment in a survival strategy I’m willing to make.

As I reeled out of Sears at 8:42 AM, book bag in hand, I hurried up the street running along its western edge, hoping to catch the 8:45 bus to the university. I knew I was running right on the cusp of making that run and that another would not be around for another hour, a result of recent cutbacks in public transportation in a city with the highest pedestrian fatality rate in America.

When I got to the bus stop, a young woman with her two school children were sitting there. They appeared to be Latino but I did not want to assume anything. My experience is that most Latinos want to speak English to you if for no other reason than to reaffirm their commitment to being in America.

I asked the woman in English if Bus 13 had come. She shook her head. İ Claro! I thought. So I repeated the question in Spanish. At first she wasn’t sure what I had asked (whether she was awaiting Bus 13), perhaps taken back by a Gringo speaking Spanish, but eventually she told me she was waiting for either of two other buses which also ran this route, neither numbered 13.  So, I specifically asked “And Bus 13? Has it already come?” “Si, 13 ha passo.” Yes. The 13 bus just came through here. “Gracias, Señora,” I said and picked up my bag to run over to Colonial Drive to catch the 104 which was due at 9 AM.

Had I not been able to speak Spanish, I would not have been able to ask if the bus had already come. And I would have waited, perhaps past the time I could have caught the only remaining route out to the university in time for my first morning class. Knowing enough Spanish to ask a simple question about the bus routes saved my butt this morning.

In No Way Demeans English

Now I can already hear the Know-Nothings screaming “This is America, they should learn English!” And, frankly, there is some truth in that assertion. English is not only America’s primary – though not exclusive – language, it is the primary language of global business today. So, yes, the woman on the bench from Central America probably should learn English. And her two boys will no doubt grow up bilingual.

But, the reality is that Florida – like much of America today – is not monolingual and hasn’t been since its colonization. Spanish is spoken in the homes of about 1 out of every 4 Floridians. And Hatian Creole French is spoken in every 50th home in this state. As I told my nephew, it is to all Floridians’ advantage to learn these languages if nothing else than for survival skills, as my own experience this morning exemplifies.

Perhaps more importantly, it is a gift to any human being who wishes to be fully human to learn other languages. Spanish provides one with entry into a major chunk of this state and this country’s history. French provides another point of entry to yet another major chunk. Learning these languages in no way demeans the English language that virtually all Americans speak. It simply enriches it.

Thank You a Todos mis Maestros

This morning, I was grateful to all my Spanish teachers over all my lifetime who have worked so hard to muster a semi-fluent Spanish that I can speak, at its peak after a couple of days in a Spanish speaking country. I thank my next door neighbor Cuban exiles in the frightening days of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 who introduced me to Spanish vowels and my first Spanish words. I thank my patient and tireless Spanish teacher at Citrus High’s evening program who helped me learn enough words to communicate with my Spanish speaking students at the middle school in the mid 1970s. I thank the teaching assistants who did their best with this law student taking Intro Spanish classes over on the main campus of the University of Florida in the 1980s. And I thank the hundreds of teachers onsite in Latin America in my many sojourns there over the past decade who have done their best to turn a Spanish sow’s ear into a semi-fluent silk purse with a modicum of success.

To all my teachers, I say thank you. Thank you for helping me catch my bus this morning. More importantly, thank you for enriching my life in ways I never knew possible so many years ago when I was learning Spanish vowel sounds at a birthday party where my brother and I were the only children who did not speak the verbal language but were able to communicate in the very human language of celebration of life which crosses all cultural boundaries.

A todos - Muchas gracias, maestros estimados. Es una cosa Buena de vera hablar un poquito de  Español (To all of you - Thank you very much, respected teachers. It is a good thing, indeed, to speak a little bit of Spanish)

No doubt, that’s at best a close approximation.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

No comments: