Archive for December, 2009


Cousin #6

He has regaled us with tales of his paratrooper jumps and told us about digging shrapnel out of people and mentioned the tense brushes he’s had with hostile citizens of foreign countries. Of all of the members of my family, he has seen the most of the world – although much of it was through the prism of humanity at its worst.

Cousin #6 came to America as a child. He didn’t become a citizen until his second tour of duty in Iraq. His paperwork was lost twice, and when he reapplied a third time, he was told to report to the county courthouse for the exam.

“But I’m in Iraq,” he said to the civil servant at the other end of the very long-distance phone call. “I can’t make it to the courthouse.”

Strangely enough, Cousin #6 believed that getting shot at in the service of one’s country was adequate proof of his patriotism. But he was initially told that this was insufficient, and it took my mother’s intervention, and the connections she had in local government, for him to receive his citizenship.

A few years ago, Cousin #6 married a fellow soldier. I mean no disrespect to her military background when I say that she is truly adorable. His wife calls him on his newfound cockiness and the swagger that he has developed in adulthood, insisting that one reason she feel for him was his awkward charm.

“When we met, he was such a dork,” she says, and they both laugh.

I remember him as less of a dork and more of a hesitant presence. As a child, he didn’t project the quiet intensity of his brother, Cousin #3, or the charisma of his fellow troublemaker, Cousin #7. Instead, he came across as a boy who wasn’t quite sure of his potential. He had a mischievous steak, to be sure, but he seemed unwilling to call too much attention to himself, and thus avoided serious trouble.

He has caused us sufficient concern, however, in the subsequent years with his overseas postings. While no fan of the men who sent him to Iraq, he remains dedicated to the Army itself. A band of tags around his wrist serves as a memento of his friend who was killed in Iraq. Cousin #6 has no plans to put the item into storage.

After multiple tours of Iraq, he enjoyed a “vacation” in Afghanistan. Although he and his wife recently had a daughter, he is heading back to that godforsaken country as part of the latest surge. We all hope that he returns safely and never has to be shipped to another war zone.

If he does get deployed somewhere else, however, we all know that he will continue to be a great representative of our nation overseas. And of course, he carries our country’s best qualities with him always.


By Law, Somebody, Somewhere, Is Dreaming of a White Christmas

I admit that I’ve been so caught up planning my holiday schedule/ reveling in my own brilliance/ wallowing in my angst (or some combination of those) that I neglected to write a Christmas-specific post this week. For that matter, I have nothing particular to say about the upcoming New Year.

This is most embarrassing.

All I can offer is this link to an interesting – and at times, disturbing – discussion over whether parents should lie to their children about the existence of Santa Claus.

My comment is that it’s often harder to pull a fast one on Latino children when it comes to the truth about the fat guy. This is because we tend to celebrate on Christmas Eve. Hispanic kids are often up all night and don’t see him arrive. In such cases, parents are reduced to saying he’ll stop by their house while everybody is at Midnight Mass (which, by the way, is another method for ensuring that Latino kids go to Mass). Even the least mathematically gifted Hispanic child grasps the odds of Santa hitting everybody’s casa in the hour or two that they’re in church.

Kids who open their presents on Christmas Day, in contrast, give Santa all night to show up. And when the presents are magically there in the morning, it’s pretty easy to buy the parents’ explanation that some jolly senior citizen broke in and dropped them off while everybody was asleep.

Regardless of your opinion of Santa, however, let me say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and good vibes all around – yes.


I May Have Said This 199 Times Before

This is my 200th post, so it’s a good time to offer quick updates on a couple of stories I wrote about recently.

First, in Pennsylvania, five people (including three cops) are under federal indictment for their role in the death of Luis Ramirez, an immigrant beaten to death in the street by a gang of white teenagers. I wrote about the acquittal of the teens in this piece for the Huffington Post. It will be interesting to see if anybody is held accountable for bludgeoning a Latino to death, or if the indictments are all just for show.

Second, in Arizona, Joe Arpaio (the “toughest sheriff in America”) is currently embroiled “in a whirlwind of back-and-forth accusations, investigations, indictments, arrests, and general animosity between warring factions of local politicos in… the fifth largest county in the country.” It seems that Arpaio’s habit of rounding up Latinos (in the hopes that some of them might be illegals) is the least of his problems.

What Arpaio and the teens in the Ramirez incident have in common is that their alleged behavior toward Hispanics was so egregious that people went ahead and quite literally made a federal case of it.

And lastly, let me pass along a funny picture taken at one of the horribly earnest, rage-filled protests that overwhelmed the nation in the last few months. I believe this shot is from one of the Teabagger rallies against all that out-of-control socialism that’s supposedly taking over the country. The kid on the bike is brave and, more important, quite clever:


Despacio, Por Favor

As I wrote in my last post, my interest in learning Spanish has been renewed. My hope is that by chipping away for a few hours each week, I will regain my long-lost fluency.

My studying recently consisted of an attempt to watch Spanish television. Flicking on the station at random, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what appeared to be a Mexican version of the “Jerry Springer Show.”

On the program, an older couple confronted their young adult daughter about her lifestyle. At one point, the parents really let her have it over some shameful behavior.

Evidently, the woman had sex with four men in one month. Or she had a walrus for lunch. I was unsure because, like I said, my Spanish is poor. Then it became impossible to track what was going on because they all started yelling at each other. The body language, however, was easy to translate.

Besides diminishing my already low opinion of human nature, the program also intimidated me. Listening to native Spanish speakers roll out rapid-fire questions and declarations verified how much I have to relearn. Up to that point, I felt pretty confident about understanding basic sentences. But the furious accusations on the show were far removed from the leisurely paced, innocuous dialogues on my Spanish-class podcasts.

The brilliant David Sedaris has pointed out the surreal nature of learning a new language as an adult. He writes that the conversations used in language courses “steer clear of slang and controversy. Avoiding both the past and the future, they embrace the moment with a stoicism common to Buddhists and recently recovered alcoholics.”

Yes, it’s quite a leap from comprehending someone’s observation that the sky is blue to understanding what that guy is screaming about at the top of his lungs. I guess I’ll have to watch more Spanish television to fully get it.

But for now, I’m taking a break from Univision. Instead, I plan to watch the sublime “Pan’s Labyrinth” without the English subtitles. I think that will go a lot better.


Bilingual Curious

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. I could easily let it go, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it’s in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don’t know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R’s at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work. Even if the situation is not critical, your feelings of helplessness will be profound.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it’s smart to know the difference between “Lo siento” and “Claro que se.” In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority’s needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill – not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don’t worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I’m going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I’ll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I’m ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial “Buenos dias,” it will be a sublime breakthrough.



I don’t text much. I’ve never understood the appeal of frantically typing out garbled syntax when I’m supposed to be driving, working, or having dinner with someone. Texts have neither the intimacy of a phone call nor the coherence of an email.

Clearly, I’m not a Luddite. After all, I created this blog, I twitter regularly, and I’ve been known to hang out on FaceBook for uncomfortably long periods of time. That’s not someone who is hostile to technology.

Still, I’m behind the curve when it comes to my Latino brethren. According to the Pew Center, Hispanics (especially young ones) are more likely than blacks or whites to text. That’s part of a larger trend, which is that ethnic minorities are more likely to rely on mobile devices than white people are.

On the surface, this is surprising. After all, while those iPhone commercials feature young people of every color gyrating in ecstasy to the device, I have yet to see a non-white person using one. The cultural stereotype, in fact, is that smartphones exist solely for upper-class whites to coordinate which sushi bar they’re meeting at.

However, plenty of minority teens and twentysomethings live on their phones. The difference is that, because they tend not to have the economic power of their white peers, they text and surf on cheaper models.

In fact, this financial aspect is one reason why young Hispanics and blacks are constantly plugged in. A cell phone with a decent internet connection is simply less expensive and more convenient than a laptop.

In short, accessing the internet via computer (as I tend to) is so very Anglo. But logging on with your cell is much more Latino.

We’ve heard a lot about the digital divide. This holds that minorities aren’t getting online as much as white people. Well, that gap narrows, and arguably disappears, when mobile devices are included.

This is doubly good news. First, it means that young Hispanics will not be left behind as technology rumbles forward. Second, it increases the odds that the Fanatic will soon make an appearance on a cell phone near you.


One of the Cool Kids Now?

Recently, I wrote about the Pew Hispanic Center’s report that detailed the countries of origin for America’s Latinos. To no one’s surprise, Mexico is the top source of our Hispanics, with Puerto Rico and Cuba following.

Those Latinos who don’t have the blood of those fine nations/territories in their veins (including your humble blogger) have felt a little on the fringe. So you can imagine my surprise when Pew said that my family’s homeland of El Salvador was number four on the list.

The reason this intrigued me is because, as I’ve written before, I grew up in the Midwest, where Latinos were sparse (at the time). Even rarer in my hometown was someone like me who answered, “Hispanic” but then had to clarify that I was not part Mexican. Many kids I grew up with became flummoxed when I explained that Latin America did not consist entirely of Mexico. Many of their parents, sadly, were similarly befuddled.

I spent a lot of time in my teen years explaining that El Salvador was an entirely separate country, and nowhere near Acapulco or Cancun. One of my friends had never heard of the nation and referred to it as San Salvador (the country’s capital) until I gave up correcting her.

So it’s amusing to me that today, so many Latinos in America hail from the place. I had no idea we were so popular.

Of course, one reason that many Salvadorans are here is because of the devastating civil war that ripped the country apart in the 1980s. Although my family’s genesis in America goes back to the 1960s (quite a while for Salvadorans), some of my cousins came here to escape that conflagration. They, and millions more like them, stayed to become Americans.

But again, back in those days, being from El Salvador was like saying, “My family hails from San Marino.” A look of WTF was the most common reaction.

That is most likely not the case today. If you’ve heard of the Dominican Republic (number five on the Pew list), then you’ve probably heard of El Salvador. And although it’s a little sad to lose that flair of exoticness, it’s a relief to not have to explain where the hell our ancestors came from.

Leave that to the Paraguayans.

December 2009
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