Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Latino like me

My wife and I are on vacation this week, which is why I've hardly posted anything in the past few days. We are visiting my hometown of Chicago, for my first time in a year and her first time ever. There are obviously a lot of sights and ideas inundating me from this visit, going from love for my beautiful city, to concern for friends that I know are going through hard economic times, to annoyance at the occasional excesses of consumer life in the US (my mother's washing machine is three times the size of the one we have in Colombia--who has that many clothes!?). I've been trying to think of clever, or eye-opening, or borderline treasonous things to write about the experience, but what has most jumped out at me is my newfound status as a Latino.

I am not originally from any Latin American country, and I do not look particularly "ethnic". I have been a fluent speaker of Spanish for about the past four years, but even when I would go to restaurants in Chicago where I knew the waiter would be more comfortable speaking in Spanish, I felt awkward about speaking it with strangers in this our Anglophone city. In fact, many times I would go places in Chicago with friends who'd lived in Spain with me, and if we would order Latin food in Spanish, the servers would understand and respond in English.

But my experience has been totally different this time with my wife. From the moment we got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale, we've run into Spanish speakers most places we've gone. We went through the non-citizen line in Immigration, and the officer there, by the last name of Ortiz, made pleasant smalltalk with us in a mix of English and really bad Spanish. The other officers in charge of corralling the non-citizens barked affably, mainly in the same grammatically-poor Spanish as our friend Ortiz.

One of the morals of this for people like Lou Dobbs who are terrified about the "Latin takeover" of the US is that they shouldn't worry too much. These customs officials, as well as most of the Latinos we've encountered in our stay in the US, speak pretty rusty Spanish. Even people who were born in Latin America end up speaking Spanish poorly after years in the States. At my 10-year high school reunion yesterday, we even saw a group of my former classmates that speak mainly English amongst themselves, and pure Spanish to their kids, because they want their kids to be comfortable in Spanish in a way they never were! A neighbor from my mother's block speaks English with what we'd call a heavy Puerto Rican accent, but she barely knows basic words in Spanish. Her accent in English is just that--not an indication of a different mother tongue, but a regional or ethnic accent, like the particularities of my speech by dint of my being from Chicago. The bottom line is that people who spend much time in the US become English-speaking Americans above all else. To a non-immigrant, many of these Latinos may look like exotic, non-US people. But to us who come from Latin America, we see them as totally Americanized. I'm sure a similar thing happens with Pakistanis or Nigerians or Croatians who visit US relatives.

That said, my wife and I have also run into many more recent arrivals to the US during our visit. When we walk down the street, we often overhear others talking in normal, correct Spanish, like us. As we carry on conversations in Spanish at stores, often the person at the counter automatically rings us up in Spanish. Even at the Indian restaurant we went to the other day, our South Asian waiter attended us in English, but the Mexicans that brought us the food confirmed our order in Spanish. At the renowned Byron's Hot Dogs in my neighborhood, we ran into an Ecuadorian working the counter. When I told him in Spanish that I wanted "everything" on my hot dog, he almost threw ketchup onto it, so I had to clarify that I wanted the "Chicago everything" (tomato, pickles, sport peppers, celery salt, mustard, etc.), and not literally everything. This wouldn't have happened if I'd said it in English, because in Chicago "everything" on a hot dog has a circumscribed meaning.

This has opened up a new world for me, a new Chicago underlying that which I already know so well. I get to listen in on the more frank thoughts and reflections of the Latinos working service jobs, or going to the park with their families. Even those ethnic Latinos that have lost the nuance of Spanish seem to feel more comfortable, to open up in a special way to my wife and me when they hear us speaking Spanish between us.

In the airport I was even mistaken for a Latino. The innumerable succession of officials, security guards, and bureaucrats addressed us in Spanish for their harried requests for passports, tickets, customs forms, etc. They always seemed a bit more relaxed when I responded in English. And by dint of our scary Colombian origin, my wife and I were automatically funneled into the X-ray inspection line for customs.

One funny anecdote doesn't have to do with the language we speak. My wife is almost six months pregnant, so she didn't want to go through the metal detector. In Bogota this wasn't a problem, but in Fort Lauderdale it meant she had to get a personalized frisking (like me in the high school dances of my Chicago Public Schools upbringing!). There was a guy in charge of the frisking giving his professional instructions in a mix of English, Spanish, and Jamaican patois, as best he was able, but he was relieved when I spoke to him in English. He told us we'd have to wait for a female security guard, because he couldn't frisk a woman. I told him not to worry, that he could do it himself. "We aren't Muslim or anything," I said, which gave him a hearty laugh, though I wondered afterwards if in the tense climate of "Ground Zero Mosque" America (which is in fact neither a mosque nor in Ground Zero) my comment was fuel for the fire of the generalized antipathy against Muslims.

Anyway, the woman security guard eventually came, and gave a detailed prep talk to us. She would be passing the wand over my wife's body, part by part. If the wand sounded, she would touch the area with the back of her hand, and if she felt something odd, she would touch with her fingers. Did my wife have any sensitive areas? This all seemed excessively careful to me, and all that talk, which was supposed to ease the experience for my wife, just made her nervous as the first barrage of rapid-fire English in her visit! In the end my wife said the shake-down was actually pretty thorough, so it was good they prepared you mentally for it, and that it wasn't a man administering it. But to me it seemed like the epitome of the early-21st century USA. On the one hand, terrorism scares have us bordering on a police state, at least in airports. But our concern for personal, civil rights is such that we have sensitivity training for the security guards of this police state.

I can imagine how this particular routine came about. Some people at some point were surely concerned about the effects of metal detectors on their body, so they refused to go through the detector. Not wanting to violate their right to not enter the detector, the aviation authorities provided the option of a personal frisking. But surely some woman objected to a man's touching her invasively, so there was a rule that only women would frisk women. But even then some woman must have still been taken aback and felt violated by the intimate nature of the body search, so they instituted this long preparation talk before the frisking. So we're left with this whole intricate spiel, when in the end the razor blades used by the World Trade Center bombers could still pretty easily be snuck through security!

We've had some other revelations and reflections related to language and culture, and the relationship between the US and Latin America. In the parties and get-togethers we've attended, I've of course introduced my wife around to everyone I know. Many people are surprised to hear that my wife had never been to the US before, and in fact had little interest in visiting before meeting me. It seems that even the most open-minded among us in the US find it hard to believe that not all Latinos are just dying to come and work here. So it's enlightening for my friends to learn that, at least in our part of Colombia, those who leave for the US tend to be less educated and are seen as uninterested in the development of their own country. They want to go somewhere where they think they can get rich quick doing menial labor. My wife's parents, on the other hand, always encouraged her to get a good education, and to use that knowledge and ability to work for the betterment of her own country. The part of her family that did go to the US confirms her stereotypes as superficial people mainly interested more in boob jobs, consumer junk, and the Miami lifestyle.

So my wife was never that interested in visiting or living in the US, not out of some Hugo Chavez-style anti-imperialist discourse, but simply because it seemed like better, more important things were going on in her homeland, and she wanted to be part of the construction of her own country. Granted, this is perhaps particular to Colombia. From what little I know of Mexico, I feel like the culture of emigration is much more widespread and powerful there, so a natural tendency for many people, both educated and uneducated, is to look to the US for work, income, culture, etc. It's hard to believe in sticking around and working on local development if no one else is thinking along the same lines. Even this though is sure to change over time, as Mexico's economy improves, the US economy tanks (in our conversations with my unemployed or precariously-employed friends, my wife has been amazed at the "Colombianization" of the US job market), and Mexicans realize the drawbacks of a national economic development model based on people's leaving the country. Anyway, I think that for the friends we've seen on this trip it's an interesting insight to learn that many Latinos are perfectly content to stay in their own country and try to make life better there, as opposed to going to the US.

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