This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on April 23, 2007.
I used to speak Spanish.
In high school I was an exchange student in the Dominican Republic, where I learned to dance merengue, drink rum, and talk baseball with an Antillean accent. In college I worked with Salvadoran refugees in San Francisco’s Mission District and I read un-translated Latin American poetry for fun. As a clergyman, I helped to draft the bilingual rules of cooperation between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.
But today the language of Sammy Sosa and Sor Juana Ynez de la Cruz doesn’t come as easily to me as once it did. I could still fend for myself on the streets of Tegucigalpa, but I’ve lost some of the eloquence and much of the vocabulary that I used to possess.
What’s weird about the atrophy of my Spanish fluency is that I live in East San Jose, across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Cesar Chavez grew up around the corner from my house. Most of the nearby businesses cater to Spanish language speakers. The neighborhood tacos are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
My neighbors are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. They speak Spanish at home, and often at work, but usually they speak English to me because they really want to learn English. Even back in the day when I was new to the barrio and my Spanish was better, people spoke to me in my mother tongue. I’m a native English speaker, and they wanted to practice the language of their new home. So now my Spanish sits mostly unused in the back of by brain, slowly slipping into a fog of forgetfulness. I may end up having to visit Paraguay if I want to re-learn Spanish.
Americans are talking a lot about immigration these days, and the discussions often turn with alarm to concerns about people coming north from Latin America and refusing to learn English. The fear is that an influx of non-English speakers will create in American a national house divided against itself, unable to stand.
This is an issue with very real consequences. Our fears around immigration are causing Americans to behave irrationally. For example, we’re spending a lot of good money to build a system of walls and fences out in the deserts along our southern border despite the fact that a brief tour of the history of walls—from China’s Great Wall to Berlin’s now demolished one—will demonstrate that walls don’t do much good. Any wall that can be built can be breached.
Some foes of immigration have suggested that the children of undocumented immigrants be denied access to government funded health care and to public education (in the nineties, voters in California actually approved such restrictions, in a referendum whose results were thrown out by the courts), as if making room for the children of undocumented immigrants in schools and clinics is less attractive than living alongside large populations of unattended, uneducated, and unhealthy children.
If, as a nation, the United States is going to enact sound and reasonable immigration policies, American citizens need to conquer our fears around what may happen to our society as the immigrant population swells, and we need to face what is true. The truth is that immigrants are learning English. Anyone who is afraid that the English language might become a relic of the past, like some curiosity on display at the Smithsonian, should come to East San Jose, to eat a few tacos and to meet the locals. Such a visitor will certainly find some folks who lack the motivation necessary to learn English—there are freeloaders and chronic loafers in every neighborhood—but most of my friends and neighbors, when they’re not working their fingers to the bone trying to provide for their families and to build a life that integrates into American society, are doing their level best to learn English.
Just last week, I was part of a small, ecumenical group of clergy who gathered for a short liturgy of prayer for healing at the site of a gang-related murder a few blocks from my home. While we were praying together an elderly and slightly eccentric woman, bent, disheveled, and several teeth short of a full smile, walked up to our group. In Spanish, she asked what was going on, and when we told her, she asked for a copy of the liturgy. Not caring that the liturgy was in English, she followed the prayers, and when it came time to close the service by singing “Amazing Grace,” she joined us, struggling to pronounce words like “wretch” and “’twas,” but managing to join us in that most American of hymns.
It was a beautiful reflection of an hospitable America, and a reminder of just how extensive is the desire of immigrants to learn English.
This is reason for hope.