A Can of Worms: First Languages, and Multi-Cultural Coexistence

Disclaimer: my intent with this (long-ish) entry is to tell a story, and from it, point to a far larger one. In these stories is embedded a conflict of massive and long-term proportions, and in telling them I do not take a side so much as try and illustrate what the taking of one leaves any of us to deal with.

At the local “dollar” store just now I just had the most interesting encounter.

The manager, a middle-aged blonde lady from hereabouts, was working the cash register, as I made to purchase a PIN card for my pre-paid cell phone account. This type of card is for variable amounts to be requested of the cashier as she validates it for usage, so I had asked her to set my card for fifteen dollars.

When she repeated back the “fifteen” to me it sounded as it often does, as if she had actually said “fifty”, so not wanting to spend fifty bucks I didn’t currently have, I repeated the “fifteen” again a little more clearly just to be sure.

She’d got it, and was not put off by my re-clarifying. Being a friendly gal with whom I have had many such amiable chats in her workspace, I told her a sort of funny story: of how one of the other ladies, who is Hispanic, had sounded like she was saying “fifty” back to me in the exact same situation another time, and because I knew she would grasp the distinction, I had said “quince” back to her in what I happen to know is her first language, and in which the number sounds nothing at all like “cincuenta.”

The story as shared just now with the manager, was a kind of common-ground tale between gringos, about that often-enough happenstance of using a little Spanish with a Spanish-speaker (in what more often than not turns out to be both parties’ “own country”), and being met with a quizzical look of Latino non-plussed-ness that despite itself expresses a kind of dismay or even (dare I say it?) offense, at hearing an anglo trying to speak Spanish to them.

Sometimes this is done by non- or non-fluent-Spanish speakers in a transparent attempt at “multi-culturalism” or “tolerance”. I have seen this approach taken many times by fellow “whiteys”, and it most often falls flat.

It is, or can be, after all a tad condescending to treat people like interesting monkeys by showing off one’s acumen at what comes off to them as a sanctimonious attempt at addressing them in their MonkeyTalk. As cringeworthy virtue-signals by “woke” college-indoctrinated white folks go, this tactic is one of the worst and most embarrassing to behold in my purview.

Kinda like having a Michigander like Hillary Clinton trying to talk Southern, in a way…

But other times, such as to nod expedientially to an obviously greater acoustic contrast entre quince y cincuenta, as opposed to between “fifty” and “fifteen”, someone who has a shred of skill in Spanish (which is all I can claim, sadly, not for lack of trying these many years) might just use a little of a hearer’s own preferred language for clarity’s sake.

But still, of course, one may expect to be met with that look from a bi-lingual citizen, of a society which prefers her not to use her own first language most of the time, a look that says, “this is our language, don’t grate on my ears trying to speak it badly.”

So, my telling this little anecdote to the English-speaking white lady who runs this dollar store, touched a nerve in her.

She had a story of her own, of how last night two of her employees, both bi-lingual young Hispanic gals, were chatting it up in Spanish on the sales floor while stocking the shelves during business hours. To hear the manager lady tell it, the conversation was loud enough and mirthful enough, and non-English enough, to be what the boss lady decided was disruptive and off-putting to the customers who were sharing that space with them.

And herein lies the earth-shaking, trouble-causing element of this little tale, quite aside from anyone’s true intent:

She had, as store manager and the ranking company representative present, asked her two subordinates to desist from speaking in Spanish to one another while working on the floor in public space.

Please, at this point, reader, keep your moral outrage in its safe space just a little longer if you can, and read on.
Rather than make canned value judgments just yet, which I know is the default way of “settling” such questions which by that means never do actually get settled, maybe take from this reading what I asked the store manager to bear in mind for herself:
that there are more than one very well-formed sides to this kind of situations and how to handle them, and that her position taken may not be the one which prevails, as much as I did believe she had a point.

And yes, at one point in recounting the event to me, she even said that customers, according to her, were “offended.” I had to cringe at that term while listening to her, for reasons unbeknownst to her, because it’s probably reasonable to expect that I spend a lot more time than she does in the sectors of cyberspace like this one where the meaning and power of the phenomenon of being “offended” receives quite a bit of airplay of late, and wherein much of the resulting discourse is indeed quite acrimonious.

And given a sort of unwritten (or over-written?) cyber-rule of offendedness, that white folks never have any grounds to be offended at all, but only are capable of being the offenders, what struck me as cringeworthy in her usage of the term was the irony of picturing her trying to make that case in such a setting as this.

Imagine the reception she would meet:

OMG, white folks “offended” at the sound of Spanish; how racist, intolerant, supremacist, how (wait for it…) deplorable…..

Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

I did say earlier that I wanted more to tell a story, than take a side.

There in the store talking to the lady, a lot of factors came to bear on my hearing her out.

Yes, she and I are both English-speaking American-citizen white folks, neither of us fluent in Spanish (believe me, I know full well that knowing my numbers, alphabet and a limited vocabulary is far from fluency), and true to our roots, by God, this is Amur-ca and by God we durn well speak English here, dammit…

Right.

English. That foreign language brought here in ships, centuries after Spanish had been established as the language of prior shipborne conquerors, and millennia since hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects had been established as the acceptable parlances of “the American people.”

English. A tongue whose native speakers on the Other Side of the Pond seldom hesitate to remind us how badly we speak it Over Here.

English. The language that came, in one generation, to replace countless African languages that also had been brought here in ships, but in their lower holds by people chained there and headed for market as human chattel.

The paragraphs above might begin to articulate parts of the reflexive “multi-cultural” responses to this sadly loaded scenario, that I would expect from much of this audience here on Medium.

What I was telling the lady, was that if this is to become a question of company policy, and she ends up answering for enforcing English as an official language in somebody’s office further up the company hierarchy, she is going to lose that fight.

And she knew it. She was already worried. That, was her story in its essence.

The whole context of her telling me about the scene, was not so much her personally disliking the sound of Spanish, or her looking down from any racist high ground at the speaking of it.

It was her unarticulated frustration, at the ongoing and vexatious fact that we live in a nation of many peoples, who among us for whatever reason have not ever chosen a single language to be allowed and utilized in common, and enforced as the primary language of our national people as a whole.

And, her fear for her job and future, that in the context of living in a vast nation which has no “official” language, what she will be facing in the HR suite instead, is people who have to make their own rulings on company policy by whatever means available.

Neither she nor I thought there was any reason to believe, that a large-ish corporation with many outlets, many employees and customers speaking many languages in many parts of the nation, would rule in her favor and do what no government and few other institutions within these allegedly “United” States ever dares do:

To designate, as many nations have, one language, as the language of common usage in the doing of whatever business is at hand.

I like the English language. The tongue that gave us both Shakespeare and the King James Bible, is adaptable and resilient enough to accommodate versions of itself from Hamlet to hip-hop, can be used with equal majesty and grace as a language of poets or the language of scientists and even enables the one to be the other at the same moment, and has the added luxury of being the one language for reasons I won’t try and defend, which is most likely to be spoken by someone near-to-hand in the most parts of the planet.

I happen to think I use it well, too. I can speak a passable University Intellectual when setting and context call for it, and I’gng talk Hick with y’all the whole live-long day too, if ye-ont-to.

But as I said, for whatever reason, we just don’t seem to be able to do in this country, what the whole world already long since has accepted as worth doing: make one language, this “English” in our case as a nation, the one language to be used in common when otherwise the presence of multiple tongues would alienate and divide us, over inability to hear each other out.

In this way, what my friend had done in making her declaration of an official workplace language, was quite enlightened when you think it through:

If we want multi-cultural settings wherein all are tolerated, how can we have them if there are not some rules by which our common ground is shared? The whole multi-cultural world is at least grudgingly, if not graciously, content to speak English when it is the one way to communicate and be heard, and yet an English-speaking lady in an English-speaking country is in fear for her job because she asked two young ladies who are already fluent in it, to limit their interpersonal dialogue to it while on the floor on the company clock.

I would probably be met with less backlash than what the poor gal down at Family Dollar has waiting for her now, if I were to swagger into any customs office in Europe or the (other) Americas and demand to be addressed in English. The chances of my being accommodated thousand of miles from home in some foreign airport, are better than hers of making her case at her employer’s HR office right here in the good ol’ USA.

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This is not only the American Southwest here, but our little town has the unique trait of being literally split by a State line, between Texas and Oklahoma, right through the heart of town. Even the community itself, both sides of it, are named after this anomaly: “Texhoma.”

We describe neighborhoods and locations as being on the “Texas Side” or the “Oklahoma Side” for clarity’s sake. The elementary school, in one of the only two-State districts in the entire USA, is on the Texas Side, while the middle and high schools are on the Oklahoma Side.

The police department are employees of the OK municipality but have enforcement authority within the portion of town over in unincorporated Sherman County, TX.

Suffice it to say, for as complicated as it is legally to have one town sit within two States, we have it worked out, and have had for a long time.

And, we have our “diversity” in other ways too.

The local population on both sides of the line is pretty evenly distributed between your ordinary white folks like me, a great many Hispanics be they Chicano, Mexicano, Cubano, Puertoriqueno, Guatemalano, what have you, and as well no small number of Mennonite families of primarily German descent. Plus in neighboring towns are quite a few Somalis and other Africans who have immigrated to the area in recent years.

And, I’m proud to say that the way visitors and travelers get received hereabouts, whatever color or origin they may claim, is exemplary and inspiring to say the least. This I have witnessed many, many times. For as nondescript and un-scenic a place as this is, it is a region that prides itself for good reason on its easygoing and un-judgmental hospitality.

By and large, everybody gets along pretty well. There is very little crime, and I have witnessed enough little public snapshots of tolerant, neighborly coexistence between all these various groups, to be satisfied that among what troubles we do have (like the weather…), racism and intolerance are not the ones we need to be concerned about.

But still, this lady is worried that sticking her neck out about the use of one common language in a common commercial space is going to put her, as she expressed it, “on the hot seat.”

The elephant in the room, of course, especially given that the store itself is maybe a hundred feet outside the State of Texas, is that a vast swath of this nation’s territory was taken quite by force in the 1840s, from our sovereign neighbor to the south.

I’m not clear on whether the newly-formed Republic of Mexico at that time had laid claim to this particular ground or not. And, to obfuscate the historicity even further is the fact that a few presidents before Polk’s War, a predecessor name of Jackson had summarily decreed that this whole region would belong to a handful of Indian tribes from the east, pretty much forever, once they had marched out here away from their homes at their own expense and whether they liked it or not, and if they survived the Trail of Tears it came to be called.

But all that said and all factors duly acknowledged, in the spirit of not taking sides, it also can be said that “that was then, this is now.”

The Indians don’t, by all indications, want the site of the Dust Bowl back, or if they do they haven’t made that claim in any litigious form I know of.

If this ever was part of Mexico, well, you have to go a long way from hereabouts to find people waving that nation’s flag in the streets. Being distinctly Latino and proud of it is one thing, being anti-American as a result quite another. I know and have known of few prouder and more patriotic, flag-waving American citizens, than the Hispanic Americans I have had the privilege to coexist with.

And, the two ladies busted by their boss for speaking Spanish, are American citizens too. Legally making a living in their own country, just as much so as their boss, who doesn’t want them speaking a language at work which (some of) their customers may not be able to understand.

I did point out to her today, that she also makes full benefit of their ability as interpreters, when the customers are ones who speak only Spanish.

That role, of the convenient (and unpaid) bi-lingual translator, is one that Latino children often begin to take on when they are barely out of diapers, their being a living bridge between a Spanish-only household and an English-only public space. Part of what makes an all-Spanish work chat between girls like these at the store such a refreshing break, is that they have been translating from one tongue to the other between people who won’t or don’t speak both, for their entire lives. Speaking the language they prefer and feel the most themselves in, is a relief, almost a kind of time-off from a job they have been doing on demand since early childhood.

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And, as if all the above weren’t convoluted enough, I’m thinking about a married couple who are clients of mine.

The lady, is a Chicana raised in New Mexico in a Hispanic household, so much the lifelong bilingualist that she now makes her living as an ESL teacher, where Rule #1 in the classroom, among what she told me are fourteen different languages represented by her students, is “English only.”

And her husband, is a full-blood Cherokee and tribal member, who calls himself a “cracker” and considers being an American his only important citizenship (he got the tribal license plates because they are cheaper…), and knows less about his tribe’s history, such as the Removal Act that drove his ancestors out here to begin with, than I do….

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On the whole, I just find this all so ironic. And, sad.

Texhoma and the surrounding area is a place where not only are the racism and intolerance I read about online all but absent around here, but where also one does not go out and publicly declare support for this Hillary person and where the word “Obama” is just considered rude and inappropriate even to utter. In other words, this is conservative country.

Not “Trump supporter” country, mind you.

That clown didn’t invent the conservative American community, and I daresay he would be quite at a loss how to coexist within one.

He is no conservative. He just isn’t Hillary Clinton. And that is the sum total of his “support” that had both these States vote him into office, and her away from it.

The irony?

In such a Red-State place, among such nice ladies (I know them all and I like them all, quite a bit), and in a spot where I would have to patiently explain terms like “intersectionality” or “multi-culturalism” to be able to use them in conversation at all?

That a nice little blonde gal who runs a little retail store, had the unilateral gumption to ask two of her staff to stick to English at work when not translating for Spanish-speaking customers, and now might lose her job because she was respecting the wishes of her customers who had mentioned it to her as out of place in an American retail store.

I told her, that I see both sides here, and recognize that each has its points.

But also, that I think I know which side will prevail. And not for any reasons of “tolerance” or “diversity”. We have those things in plenty around these parts, and they ain’t no need fer no city-slicker lib’ruls enforcin’ ‘em on us.

But what we also have, and it will take more than the election of some fast-talking New York realtor to rid us of it, is the fear wielded by the invisible hand of political correctness.

Yes, even here in little backwater, Dust-Bowl, Republican Texhoma, what my friend the store manager did, was politically incorrect.

And I think it is going to cost her way more than what anyone’s being “offended” or “oppressed” or “marginalized” could possibly have been worth.

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