Travels with Helen

Today’s post is guest written by my husband, David. He has watched me in action over the years, and this is the story of some things he has learned.

In 25 years of marriage to Helen, I’ve learned a lot about my unconscious biases. I was raised on an entirely family-run farm in Oregon. When my older brother took Spanish in high school, I remember wondering why he would do that. Spanish was the language of the uneducated. They were migrant workers and probably illiterate. I had no contact with them, but I had biases against them anyway.

When we have these biases, they are not consciously chosen. It’s just how things are. We claim to be unbiased, but only because we don’t know any better.

This year, over Memorial Day Weekend, Helen and I spent our time at the Oregon Coast. We ate at a restaurant with an obvious Mexican slant in its menu, and Helen struck up a conversation with our server. After talking in English for a while, they switched to Spanish, and the words really started to fly! I don’t speak Spanish, so I had to get a summary from Helen afterwards. The server’s story is one that I’m beginning to realize is extremely common among the Hispanics in the US.

Our server moved to the US after completing 6th grade in Mexico and finished his education here in English. Listening to him speak, however, it’s obvious that Spanish is where his heart is. He has a strong desire to continue his Spanish education here in the US. He’s taking a Spanish writing class at the 200 level in his local community college, but finds it completely boring. It’s far below his level of knowledge of Spanish. He’s staying with it, hoping to learn something, but it’s very discouraging for him. He speaks fluently, but he wants to learn to write better.

Helen is working on providing education for heritage Spanish speakers, respectfully taught at their level, and he was excited to hear that she would like to bring a class to Newport if enough students could be found.

The next day, we heard a repeat of the same story when Helen struck up a conversation with a cleaning lady at our hotel in Depoe Bay. The cleaning lady appeared to almost be in tears during the conversation. She was speaking with someone who respected her, understood her situation, and wanted to help. That’s not something the Hispanics in the U.S. encounter very often. Her boss walked by during the conversation and joined in. The cleaning lady had no idea that her boss had spent time in Argentina and was very sympathetic with the plight of Hispanics in the States.

Through this contact there’s the possibility of getting some good Spanish literature in the local library. Her boss has contacts with the library, and it’s in the process of expanding.

I have been with Helen while she has had many encounters of this sort, and it’s very often the same story:

  • Either the Spanish speaker received as much education as was available in their location before moving to the US, or they moved while they were still in school. In any case, they want to continue their Spanish studies.
  • Hispanic employees are often expected to translate into Spanish at their jobs, but since their Spanish education was cut short, they really can’t do it well. They know that and want to get better. However, they have limited opportunities to do that once they are in the States.
  • Many libraries and bookstores in the US have limited Spanish sections, as Helen pointed out in this article a few years ago.

I hear these stories when I’m with Helen. She’s Hispanic, so they talk to her. They won’t tell these things to a Gringo like me. But it’s the same story, over and over. Only the names and faces change.