As the hurricane approached, we stayed in communication through text. Then I called a few days before to check up on them. My mom was calmed and not too worried. Cellphone signal had came back just the day before I called. They still had no power in the neighborhood, but the water was back. They were prepared; they had water, food, fuel, and an electric plant. My sister – who works for the Department of the Family of the Commonwealth – had visited a shelter and checked up on her clients. They were ready to face the hurricane. The last I heard from my mom was a reply to my text saying: “yes, I am calmed.”
Those are the last few words I have from my family. I have not heard from them yet.
I have read news reports that tell me my neighborhood is fine and that there are no registered deaths in my hometown as of today. I read about the efforts to clear the roads and make sure that people have access to larger towns to get supplies. But there are no ways to get in touch with the outside world. How does the word go out about what’s happening? People from the metro area in San Juan who have family in Adjuntas go down to check up on them and then share what they had seen and heard on social media as the limited access to cellphone coverage allows them to.
But now going back to the question: How have I been able to function?
I have compartmentalized my self. Having to communicate in English helps. It is not my language. It is not my soul. It is not what connects me emotionally to the world. I focused on the tasks. I focused on the routine (of not having a routine), and pay attention only to the work in front of me. I have the news in the background and read the texts and news that I get constantly. But those are in español, those do not belong to the workplace. Those belong to mí.
I have compartmentalized my life in the past few days. Sure, I have shared news with coworkers and friends who ask. I have even shed a tear or two while doing so. I have tried to perform what is asked of me by the US society: calmness, be collected, show little emotion when talking about such things, etc. Like always, I have learned how to perform according to the social rules of the social mores of the society I live in. I have completely disconnected myself from all, creating walls that separate the mí from the me.
When I am home, or when I am speaking with a close friend, or when I am alone in my office and listening to the news, I cry. I let it all go and finally feel mí.
I know that my family is fine. Something within me tells me so. I also know that it will be probably weeks before I hear from them. I, too, am from those areas in the world where nobody cares about you; where the government has nothing to gain but votes every so often, where “charities” have no good faces or locations for photo-ops. I am from the place where the only thing that helps us is ourselves: the community who stands up, puts on their boots, picks up their machetes, brave the remainder rain and winds, and goes out to join one by one as they clear paths and help restore their comunidad. That resiliency is what helps me function. I am a jíbaro, and jíbaros don’t give up.
It was the first board meeting of the year for a large, international organization. As there were going to be new members for the board, it was needed to go around and introduce ourselves. There were people from the four nations where the organization has a presence plus individuals from other nations who reside in one of the four nations represented. Everyone was sharing their names, location, and their job. It was right there when it happened…
With no hint of irony in her voice, the white, middle age, college-educated woman states that she lives in one of the places that was taken first from the native inhabitants and then from the nation to the south. Proudly she tells her audience – an international audience – that she “teaches foreign students how to lose their accents so they can get jobs” in the United States. Yup. Right as you read it. Immigrants who had spent years of education, who probably speak more than one or even two languages, needed this woman’s help to lose their accents so they could get in with the system.
I looked around for the reaction of my fellow immigrants and non-white colleagues, and, unsurprisingly, we all cringed a little. What this woman was saying, unconsciously, is that our accents make us look dumb, uneducated and unprepared for the professional challenges that jobs in this country offer.
Not long ago, something similar happened to me as I was about to take a new position and someone suggested that the organization paid for a coach who would help me lose my accent. (Full disclosure: I was not informed of this until after I had accepted the position, which caused much pain as I worked there.)
The USA culture states that, no matter how ethnically diverse the country is, those of us who have kept our accents from our mother tongues do not quite belong. For some immigrant communities this has meant that their ancestors’ languages have been lost because the parents are worried their children might not be able to find work or succeed in life. Interestingly, the culture has also incorporated words from other languages into the US English. Think, for instance, about words such as Kindergarten (German), pierogi (Polish), mesa (Spanish), bouquet (French), Brooklyn (Dutch), finale (Italian), tycoon (Japanese) and shtick (Yiddish), just to name a few. Other languages are part of the US culture, but nobody wants to acknowledge it. Moreover, if those of us who emigrated here from other countries with a different language use our own languages to communicate or express ourselves in English with an accent, then we are scolded for it.
Yet, nobody pays attention or asks Australians, South Africans, Jamaicans, New Zealanders, Trinidadians or British to lose their accents. Why?
It is true that communication is extremely important in academic and professional settings. (The personal settings are a bit different due to the familiarity of the people involved.) However, our accents and language backgrounds should not dictate our – the immigrant’s – capabilities to do the work. Being able to speak a language different than English does not mean that we have less education, less knowledge or less professional abilities. It only means that our education was in a language that was comprehensible to us as we grew up and became professionals. In fact, nobody questions the intelligence of English-speakers when you come to our countries and often times refuse to learn at least basic phrases to communicate with the people who live there.
Here are three other things that US Americans need to understand about people who speak other languages. First, most of us do speak English. Our accents only mean that English is a second, third and sometimes even fourth language (I had a seminary professor for whom this was the case, where English was the fourth language he learned.) The use of English along our own mother tongues only points to the fact that we are bi- or multi-lingual. How many languages you, English-speaker, are able to read, understand and speak?
Second, the truth is that every chance we have, we use to learn how to pronounce words, how to expand our vocabulary, and how to find the correct way to use your language in all contexts. Have you thought how difficult it is for a foreigner who was only exposed to “proper” English to figure out some of the common idioms and day-to-day phrases of your language? Take, for instance, “cut the mustard”. I know what the verb “cut” is, and I know that “mustard” is a condiment. How in the world am I supposed to know that “cut the mustard” means “to succeed”?! My mental references for mustard do not even allow for cutting! Mustard, as a seed, is too small to be able to be cut, and as paste, there is no need to be cut as it spreads. Do you follow my thoughts? (There’s another one!) I can tell you, from my personal experience, that I even take time to listen and practice pronouncing a word over and over and over again trying to find the correct way to pronounce it.
Third, there is the issue of pronunciation and hearing. You, who grew up listening to words in your language all the time, might be able to catch the subtle difference between “leave”, “live” and “leaf” but, trust me; it all sounds exactly the same to me! I need to pay attention to the context in which you used these words to find which one you used. How hard it is for you to do the same exercise? All of this is tiring, but it is exactly what non-English speakers have to do every day of our lives in this country (and what English-speakers have to do every day if they live in countries outside of the English-speaking world.)
There are two final thoughts I want to share with all of you. First, is the issue of regional accents within the United States. Most people fret about and want to change the accent of foreigners, but you seldom hear about changing the accents of people from different regions within the country. There are not-too-small differences between the accents of an Alaskan, a West Virginian from the mountains, a person from Brooklyn and one from Massachusetts. Yet, nobody will dare recommending that we all come to an agreement about speaking with the same “standard” English accent. Why? Because there is no such thing as a standard accent in any language! All languages have regional differences! Hence the ridiculous idea of asking British, Jamaicans, Australians, South Africans and Trinidadians to change their accents… they all speak English with regionalisms and it is a matter of adapting our ears to those regionalisms in order to understand each other.
Finally, my accent is, to me, a point of pride. It tells me that I speak more than one language, that I am able to communicate with more people than mono-lingual persons, and that I bring with me to this country a history. It defines who I am at this moment of my life and it makes me feel part of the global community, not just of a small community of either people of the United States or people of Puerto Rico. I can drive through the northern border of the USA and make myself understand just as I can cross the southern border and still engage in conversations. (Unfortunately, I do not speak French; therefore any visit to Quebec would be an adventure… And one that I would gladly welcome!)
My best advice to those who complain about my accent, or about any accent for that matter? Get over it.
September 15th through October 15th is “Hispanic Heritage Month.” Here is a list I put together of books that talk about the Hispanic/Latin@ experience in the United States from different perspectives. I have only included books I have read and deemed interesting. I have also tried to capture different aspects of the Hispanic/Latin@ vida: from religion to sociology to economy to immigration… (I still have a very long list of other books to read… once I do read them, they will show up on this list!)
It is my hope that you can grab at least one of these books during this month and learn more about the Latin@/Hispanic experience in the United States. All of the books are in English, as my intention is to reach out to the English-speaking friends of all ethnicities and races. Hope you enjoy!
1. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective by Justo L. González
2. En la lucha / In the Struggle: Elaborating a mujerista theology. A Hispanic Women’s Liberation Theology by Ada María Isasi-Díaz
3. La Cosecha: Harvesting Cotemporary United States Hispanic Theology by Eduardo C. Fernández
4. Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins by Loida I. Martell-Otero, Zaida Maldonado Perez and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier
5. Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo
1. When I Was Puerto Rican: A Memoir by Esmeralda Santiago
2. Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago
3. The Turkish Lover by Esmeralda Santiago
4. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
5. The Circuit : Stories From the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez
6. Breaking Through by Francisco Jiménez
7. Reaching Out by Francisco Jiménez
8. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez
9. Christ-Like by Emanuel Xavier
10. Americano: Growing up Gay and Latino in the USA by Emanuel Xavier
11. Santo de la Pata Alzada: Poems from the Queer/Xicano/Positive Pen by Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano
12. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
1. Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten
2. Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy That Shaped a Nation by Ray Suárez
3. Latinos: A Biography of the People by Earl Shorris
4. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan González
5. Latinos: Remaking America edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Mariela Páez
6. Historical Perspective on Puerto Rican Survival in the United States edited by Clara E. Rodríguez and Virginia Sánchez Korrol
1. From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity by Juan Flores
2. It’s All in the Frijoles: 100 Famous Latinos Share Stories, Time-Tested Dichos, Favorite Folktales, and Inspiring Words of Wisdom by Yolanda Nava
3. Latinos in America: Philosophy and Social Identity by Jorge J. E. García
Social & Contemporary Issues
1. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin
2. HIS-Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S. by Geraldo Rivera
3. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon
4. The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America by Nicolás C. Vaca
5. “They Take Our Jobs!” And 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky