But We Brought Chickens
Questioning language competency
It's happening again. I'm once again beginning to question my language competency. But this time, it's not my teachers or classmates, but the president who is triggering this questioning.
Published on LatinoLA: March 6, 2005
This all began when I was first brought to this country as a child. The second English word I learned was "wetback."
"Pay no attention to them," my parents would tell me. "We didn't swim across the ocean."
The next words I learned were "dirty Mexican." Funny thing, many of those hurling those insults included people who looked like me. But in those days, those who looked like me were "Spanish," though they didn't speak Spanish, or claimed not to.
"Por que no hablan Espanol?" I would ask my parents.
"Because they don't eat chile," they would reply. This was circa 1960, in East Los Angeles, and yes, that's when I began eating chile. It's also when I began learning English at a pretty fast clip, though the grammar rules initially stumped me. High and low were not simply what was above and below, but also musical notes. Failure to know this led my teachers to conclude I was tone deaf or retarded.
There were other silly rules. One time a baton-welding cop accosted us in front of the L.A. Coliseum, screaming: "No picnic! No picnic!"
But my dad's English-speaking Mexican-American compadre got up and told him: "But we bought shicken."
With those magic words, he backed off. Another time, we got chased off of a hilly lawn by an old lady. My mom had thought it was a nice place for her flock to rest. "Vieja loca," she said. "She wasn't even using the grass."
Truth is, these stories are not limited to my childhood, and they're not all language-related.
When I was falsely accused of trying to kill several police officers a generation ago (with a camera), at my trial, their attorney claimed that I was leading a gang of 10 to 15 Mexicans against them. (How stereotypical: There were also Central Americans and Puerto Ricans in the crowd.) He further charged that I was not fully English-competent because I was Mexican. I almost rose up and shouted: "But we bought shicken!" (I had actually just scored 99.9 in the language comprehension portion of a court-ordered exam.)
Recently, after being out of school for a generation, a high-ranking university administrator, upon hearing the click of my pen, asked me if I had brought a switchblade ... to my Ph.D. orientation. "You've been watching too many movies," I retorted.
Last year, at a progressive media conference in the Midwest, my wife and I noticed there were virtually no people of color there. When we sat down to eat, a participant came up to us and wanted to know if we were part of the food crew. (Was it our color?)
You get the picture. These misunderstandings have followed me everywhere -- except perhaps during the '70s. Yet, the nightmares again started when Ronald Reagan became president. He supported bloodthirsty, civilian-murdering thugs in Central America, yet called them "freedom fighters."
I had to reach for a dictionary on that one. And then came Vice President Dan Quayle and his "competitiveness" council. If there was a law to protect workers, consumers, endangered species or the environment, he'd find a way around it. Then there was President Clinton and the meaning of "is."
Yet all that was but a prelude to the current president. When he disembarked in Europe this week, he disingenuously characterized his militarism as "idealistic." His tortured language reminds me of the days when my vocabulary was limited to "toilet."
Bush wants his buddies to be able to pollute freely, so he creates the "clear skies" initiative." Did I miss class when they explained the meaning of "clear"?
Nowadays, he's telling the world he's on the side of the "oppressed," this while sabotaging the International War Crimes Tribunal. Actually, the oppressed (and even the allies) can barely stand him. On the other hand, dictators, theocrats and undemocratic rulers love him like a favored son (see: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan).
The president now says he's against tyranny. Is that the same as opposing nations waging immoral wars under false pretenses, against the will of virtually the entire world?
And now I'm beginning to question my math skills. There's plenty of money for permanent war and the militarization of society ... but little for cleaning up the environment, for seniors, veterans and for higher education?
I can almost hear Bush say: "But we bought shicken!"