News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lost in translation

Growing up in a Miami during the 1960s, I was told the story of a recent Cuban refugee eager to impress his Anglo neighbor who had come to the immigrant’s front door. “Between,” the Cuban said smiling while he gestured for his English-speaking neighbor to enter. “Between and drink a chair.”

In that era, Miami’s many Cuban immigrants struggling to learn English appreciated the joke. “Enter and take a seat” [Entre y tome una silla] literally translated becomes “between and drink a chair.” These days, the mixed signals between English and Spanish speakers in the U.S. are not much of a laughing matter. Especially when we realize that actions speak louder than words.

“You are welcome here,” America said to the millions of undocumented workers who arrived clandestinely over the last two decades. “Come and pick our crops, clean our floors, build our houses, and take care of our children.” With a knowing wink we invited their cheap labor into our homes, farms, restaurants, construction sites and canning plants. Remember when "help wanted" signs were as common as meal deal posters at fast food joints? As long as prices remained low for the things we wanted to buy, most Americans were willing to look the other way.

All that changed when many of these workers started bringing family members across the border and having children here—children who became entitled to full citizenship. As their numbers grew and their presence became impossible to ignore, the unspoken words of welcome vanished. Many who accepted undocumented workers as long as they were invisible began shouting for them to leave. That’s why, from the Latino side of the fence, the outrage being vented on “illegal aliens” today seems like a massive case of hysterical amnesia.

On June 2nd, as-yet-undeclared presidential candidate Fred Thompson got a standing ovation during a Republican fund-raising dinner in Virginia. “We get to decide who comes into our home,” Thompson said to the delight of his well-heeled audience. However, there is a question Mr. Thompson and many like him conveniently ignore: Who really decided the millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. could come here to begin with?

Raul Ramos y Sanchez