Alabama Casera Dulce?

I don’t always speak Spanish, but when I do, I prefer having Jose Rafael Rodriguez (aka, my translator “Danny”) somewhere in the immediate vicinity. I am neither the most interesting man in the world, nor the most bilingual.

I tried to memorize enough Spanish eye care phrases to get by on my recent trip to Guatemala, but despite my best efforts and intentions, I found myself leaning hard on Danny. I would usually start out the day doing a passable job-abre sus ojos (“open your eyes”), mira arriba (“look up”) –but as things got hot and busier and I became increasingly fatigued, I started to mangle my rote phrases more and more. I would then simply shrug and look at Danny and motion toward the patient with my head, body language for “Yeah, yeah, I know, go ahead.”

He knew I couldn’t get along without him and he relished it and wouldn’t let me forget. One of my favorite things to ask the patient at the end of the consult was Tiene preguntas? (Do you have any questions?). I pride myself on being the kind of doctor who doesn’t rush from the room to put out another fire until the patient has had their say. I would say the phrase perfectly (Prrrray-GOON-toos!) and wait for the patient to reply.

Nueve times out of diez, this came in the form of a quizzical stare and a cocked head. I would shrug and look at Danny and he would repeat the phrase word for word to the patients–the same way I had–and suddenly the proverbial light bulb would appear in one of those little fluffy, cumulus thought clouds above their heads. While the patients would launch into a litany of preguntas, more than I could count, really, Danny would simply look at me and grin.

I was thinking about those times and smiling this past Sunday during “Hispanic Emphasis Day” at our church. Once again, I was mispronouncing most of the Spanish words to the songs on the bilingual PowerPoint slide (yes, I actually payed attention to them this time), but I was having fun trying. I liked the idea that even though I couldn’t roll the “Rs” like I was supposed to, that at least my heart was in the right place. In fact, as I looked out on what is normally an ocean of pale, lily-whiteness and spied a swirling eddy of chocolate brown, my heart nearly leaped from my chest.

I wondered what it would be like if we met together and went to the extra effort of having bilingual services more often. I wondered if, like the capable bilingual preacher from Abilene had said that morning, we might become a little bit less “Inglés church” and “Hispanic church” and a little more “Uno church.” Maybe I could learn a little more Spanish, and they could learn a little more English. Maybe, even, there would be a little less “Us and Them” and a little more just “Us.”

I couldn’t help but marvel at the timeliness of it all, how just the previous week a certain Republican gubernatorial wannabe in Alabama had made national headlines with his proclamation in a televised ad that if he was elected governor that the state driver’s license exam would be given in English only (it is currently given in 12 languages). “This is Alabama, we speak English. If you want to live here, learn it,” he puffed.

When I heard that I thought, well, I suppose learning the language of a new host country is very important, but in order to do that and to begin the process of becoming a legal and responsible resident, wouldn’t one need to drive to work and perhaps even to an English as a Second Language class?

But of course, his message isn’t about hospitality to strangers or pragmatic, real-life concerns. It’s about garnering votes, and really, a certain kind of vote, for a primary less than a month away. It’s a dog whistle that reaches far into both the privileged, well-manicured enclaves and the dense, primeval backwoods of this state, calling forth the same spirit of folks who once upon a time not that long ago thought that literacy tests prior to voting were a very fine idea indeed.

Make no mistake about it; that Alabama governor wannabe knows exactly what he’s doing.

I looked out upon that ocean of lily-whiteness and wondered how many of my fellow congregants had nodded in affirmation and replied “Preach on, brother,” when they saw that political ad on TV. Not many, I hoped. But if there were some there, I prayed that that maybe this sweet fellowship was melting their hearts and causing them to rethink their position a little.

Then I looked into my own heart and asked myself how much I had done personally to help welcome the strangers in my midst, and the answer was no mucho.  And it occurred to me that if Alabama was to be casera dulce for all, that maybe I should get off my lazy asno, put my dinero where my boca is, and finally order that Rosetta Stone software I’ve been threatening to buy.

  1. cg

    The way I see it, being able to communicate with our Hispanic brothers and sisters is one thing; requiring them to be able to read our highway signs- which are in English- while they are driving, is quite another.

  2. Mike the Eyeguy

    I don’t think the issue is recognizing a few basic English words and the shapes of road signs. The issue is the additional burden of having to possess a reading knowledge of English in order to understand the instructions and questions on a written driving knowledge test.

    Let’s put it this way: Is a reading knowledge of Spanish, enough to understand the instructions and questions on a Spanish driving knowledge test, necessary for a couple of gringos like you and me to be able to safely drive in a Central or South American country?

    While certainly beneficial, it’s not absolutely necessary. In fact, NASCAR driving tactics of Guatemala City aside, I would expect more trouble personally in Great Britain where we speak the same language but where the poor blokes insist on driving on the “wrong side” of the road.

    And by the way, in your home state of Michigan, the written driver’s license test is offered in many languages as well. That’s pretty much the standard among civilized folks. Count me as one Alabamian who would prefer to stay that way.

    Call me cynical if you must, but methinks our wannabe Governor is up to something other than the “public good.”

  3. rebecca

    I’ve been able to use what little bit of Spanish I can still remember sufficiently to “habla en espanol” to help some lost souls who clearly did not understand the English being yelled at them.   Inside, we are all the same and have the same basic needs and wants (security, a home, family, someone to love us, some food to eat, etc.). Those desires are not uniquely American.  In my travels I have discovered that we all live the same lives, just in different houses, with different languages and accents.   I find it personally very gratifying to travel abroad and speak enough of the local language to get by (both espanol y italiano).  

  4. Laurie (on Facebook)

    I’m feeling a strong desire to tag team with
    you on this issue, specifically (and pragmatically) addressing the
    drivers license issue. May put something up on my blog in the next day
    or so. P.S. Great post.

  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    Rebecca–I wish that like you I had possessed the good sense to take Spanish with Mrs. Foley instead of Latin (nothing against Mr. Bezy, mind you). It’s my goal to “habla en espanol” enough to be of more use to everyone my next time in Guate and maybe even on occasion closer to home.

    Laurie–Thanks. Since you’ve got some serious cred in the trenches teaching
    English as a second language, I look forward to your take on it.

  6. cg

    You are correct about Micigan’s driver’s test.  I’m sure most states offer DL tests in mutiple languages, but it doesn’t mean I agree with that.  I suppose that makes me an ‘uncivilized folk’. 

  7. Mike the Eyeguy

    Well, probably not “uncivilized” in a nose-picking, eat-with-your-hands, redneck sort of way. Although you do root for the Kansas Jayhawks, so I may need to rethink that.

    But maybe in an “unable to appreciate at this time that a hospitable environment as demonstrated by multilingual DMV tests actually makes you stronger in that foreign companies feel comfortable bringing their business to your state and creating career opportunities for your young people” sort of way.

    In Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, the gubernatorial candidate character Willie Stark said, “Stir them up and they’ll love it and come back for more, but, for heaven’s sakes, don’t try to improve their minds.”

    As Christians, I believe that we should try to improve our minds along with the rest of humanity so that we might not be manipulated by any man’s rhetoric. That is, we should learn to think for ourselves. And, I might add, pay extremely close attention to the plethora of scripture in both Old and New Testaments that speak to the vital importance of showing hospitality both to our neighbors who speak the same language and look like us and the strangers among us who don’t.

    For more insight into how this particular political ad was constructed and its true intent, this article may prove helpful.

  8. cg

    “As Christians, I believe that we should try to improve our minds along
    with the rest of humanity so that we might not be manipulated by any
    man’s rhetoric. That is, we should learn to think for ourselves.”I agree.  That’s why I’m dead-set against big government and the left-wing agenda.Don’t worry Mike, I won’t let political differences or college/conference allegiances interfere with our cyber-friendship.  But I still think that having DL tests in English only insures that drivers will be able read all road signs, consequently improving road safety.

  9. Mike the Eyeguy

    Oh bien, todo el un hombre puede hacer es intentar.

  10. Alan

    Mike, I dig this post.  I was in your neck of the woods a few weeks ago when they announced this and I actually thought of it when I read what that gubernatorial clown said.As if Alabama needs another governor making racial headlines…(yeah I went there)

  11. Mike the Eyeguy

    Alan, in this case the apple doesn’t fall from the tree. His father is a former two-term governor (once as a Democrat, once as a Republican) and I’m sure he’s been right there coaching him the whole time.

    He has managed to make it a relatively tight 3-way primary race, but with the Republican establishment firmly behind Bradley Byrne, I don’t see him (or Judge “Rolling Stone” Moore) having too much success over the long haul with his “old school” tactics.

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