In my mid-forties, one of my duties as the head of a local teachers union was to attend a national convention in Florida. My mother, in her sixties at the time, and, always eager to travel, suggested we take this opportunity to make a cross-country motor trip together. Though different in many ways, the pair of us were amiable traveling companions, preferring by-ways to highways, so I agreed.
The journey had its challenges. Our rental car suffered a flat tire along a seldom traveled country road; a sudden storm forced us to take lodgings in a place that might have passed for the Bates Motel; and one afternoon, we found our road-weary selves seated in a restaurant that served cold biscuits and omelets crisp enough to break apart with our fingers.
The time was somewhere in the 1970s, a period when an AAA trip tik served as automotive navigation. Not only did the thick pamphlet contain maps of our route but it provided information about lodging and places to eat along the way. Having served us well on the outward-bound leg of our journey, we were confident when the time came for the return trip. Even so, somewhere in Florida, I took a wrong turn and found myself in an area where billboard messages were written in Spanish.
My mother could read them, being born in Costa Rica, but I could not. Afraid I’d speak English with an accent if I were bi-lingual, my father refused to allow me to learn my mother’s native language. So, on the day she and I were lost, I relied upon her translations to find my way. Unfortunately, these directions always came after the fact, making them useless. “You should have turned right two blocks ago.” Eventually, I pulled the car to the side of the road in front of an eatery that was ablaze with light. Perhaps a waiter could guide me.
Trip tik in hand, I entered the premises to the sound of a bell jangling above the transom. Though not much larger than a thimble, it made a piercing sound, like a kettle on the boil, so I was not surprised when the restaurant’s patrons looked up from their plates with startled expressions.
Not wanting to remain the center of attention, I hurried toward the cashier standing behind a counter. A man somewhere in his early fifties with a crown of black hair and a girth to suggest he never said no to a tamale stared at me with the same expression as his customers. When I pointed to my map and asked for the way to the road north, his eyes became more vacant.
Repeating my question failed to garner a response other than to cause him to scratch his head. Either he was deaf or did not speak English. Rather than guess, I turned to two men seated at a nearby table. Did they know how to reach the northbound freeway? Like the cashier, they answered me with silence, their expressions suggesting that if I wanted conversation, I should try the morgue.
“Wake up and come with me,” I said as I rapped on the car window behind which my mother was snoozing. “No one inside speaks English.”
A cat-like grin stretched across her face which I found annoying but she was quick to follow my steps to the restaurant. The bell overhead rang a second time, and as if a spotlight had flared on center stage, my mother came to life. I don’t know what she said to her audience, but after some well-chosen words, the diner filled with laughter.
The young men I’d spoken to earlier scrapped back their chairs in response and came toward us. Their heads almost touched as they studied my trip tik, joined by the cashier who seemed eager to add to their consultation. They murmured to one another for some time, though I was unable to understand their conversation.
Eventually, the cashier lifted his head to address me and then used his pen to trace a route on my map for me to follow. “The freeway’s not far. Maybe five minutes. You can’t miss it,” he said. His English was flawless.
After a cursory, “Thank you,” I stormed from the restaurant. “What was that about?” I snapped to my mother as if she were to blame for what had occurred.“Why did they treat me like I was foreign?”
I turned the key to the car’s engine hard enough to make a grinding noise which seemed to amuse my mother. “Pay no attention, Petunia. They’re Cubans. Not like the rest of us Latins.”
I tell this story because if the goal of our county is to embrace inclusion, people of all social and ethnic cultures have to make an effort. That steamy day in Florida, when I was made to feel like a stranger opened a wound. Particularly when the prejudice came from a segment of society that I least expected.
The child of an immigrant, I understand why ethnic enclaves exist. People build barriers when they fear rejection or want to feel safe. But, Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling and walling out.*
Solid fences can become prisons where the landscape offers a dreary sameness. Take food for example. Who wants a steady diet of biscuits and gravy when they could add pizzas? Or curries? Or Gveltifisch? Well, maybe not Gveltifisch. But Baklava, yes!
As a writer, I appreciate the foreign terms that enrich our language. Hopefully, English may one day become as varied as that of the Inuits. They have dozens of words for snow. Why should English struggle with less? Ezra Pound peppered his poetry with foreign terms. English, he decided, was too spare. I agree. Sometimes I’m tempted to invent onomatopoeic words to express my meaning the way Lewis Carroll did in Jabberwocky.
A blend of different cultures also helps expand our horizons. Getting Lost to Find Home cites several East African courtesies we’d do well to adopt. We could begin with words of apology to their ancestor, immigrants who were brought to this country against their will to serve as slaves. Theirs is a different story of enculturation, and without an apology, one that remains as a stain in our history.
If we are honest, every immigrant has a lesson to teach about freedom. Today, strangers arrive at our borders seeking a better life. They know that in a democracy, power resides with the people. They also know that when everyone is equal, an opportunity for upward mobility exists.
One could even argue that those who aspire to be among us are greater patriots than many who were born here — jaded men and women who take their heritage and the rule of law for granted. Ennui makes them vulnerable to a leader who would be king and poses a danger to the country that comes not from without but from within.
New patriots aren’t so easily fooled. Many have escaped corrupt regimes where family members have either been imprisoned or shot. Yet, these worldly travelers come to us with hearts full of hope. They know as some of us do not that Freedom and democracy are dreams you never give up. (Aung San Suu Kyi)
*Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”