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Bridging the language gap and our biases

BIFF AMERICA

When trying to make myself understood by those who do not speak my language, I’ve found it helpful to talk to them very loudly. It was for that reason that I screamed at the two Mexican children. Six friends and I were on a bicycle ride in northern New Mexico. We passed through many rural – mostly Hispanic – communities where the skin on my legs was the whitest in the city limits.Because of a poor sense of direction and a small bladder, I fell behind the group and was lost. I stopped at a local diner for coffee and directions. The lady behind the counter was gracious, but my bright bicycle clothing and brighter complexion made me feel a little out of place.The waitress told me of a shortcut that would allow me to make up some time, but it required riding a few miles on dirt roads. I passed through neighborhoods that looked like employee housing for the unemployed. Junked cars, dusty children and chained pit bulls decorated the rocky front yards of small trailer homes and shacks. Because of the rutted road and my own uneasiness, I pedaled slowly and kept my eyes straight ahead.

Just before I reached the pavement, I saw two little brown-skinned kids, a boy and girl, pushing a bicycle. The girl was older, maybe 7 or 8, the boy a couples years her junior. Both looked as if they had been rolling in mud. I noticed the chain had fallen off their bicycle – obviously the reason they were pushing not riding. I looked to see if there were any adults around before I decided to stop and offer assistance.Assuming the street urchins did not speak my language I yelled, “DO YOU NEED HELP WITH YOUR BIKE?” The excessive volume of my question and my approach from behind caused the little boy to jump. If I surprised the little girl, she hid it well. Rather she turned, smiled and said in perfect English with a surprisingly proper dialect, “Oh thank you sir. My little brother was showing off and caused the chain to fall off his bicycle.”The easiest way to put a chain back on is to turn a bicycle upside down. When I tried to do that, the little boy was reluctant to let go. So while the two of them struggled to hold the ancient two wheeler over their heads, I slipped the shackle back on the front chain-ring. As soon as the bike touched the ground the boy jumped back on and began doing violent circles in the road. His sister yelled at him in Spanish and he slowed down.

She turned to me and said, “Thank you so much for stopping. Enjoy your ride.” She hollered something to her brother again in Spanish and he then turned to me and said, “Thank you sir.”As I reached the pavement, I looked back and saw the little boy riding circles around his sister as she walked down the dirt road. The irony soon hit me. Here I was making assumptions, based on my own homogenized bias, of the language proficiency of those two kids when, in truth, they were much more linguistically capable than me.Both of them spoke two languages perfectly, while I, with my heavy Boston accent, can’t be understood in parts of my own country. My parents were bigots. It is not that they felt blacks, Jews, gays or Protestants were necessarily evil or inferior, they just subscribed to the various racial, social and religious stereotypes. They believed that the races and creeds could socialize to a point, but best not completely intermingle or ever marry.One of my oldest and closest friends is black. My parents were very gracious to him as my friend. Years later, when he dated one of my sisters, they were not so gracious.

At the time, I was ashamed and judged them harshly. The years have since tempered my opinions.My self-proclaimed open-mindedness and liberalism was made possible by my parents’ first-generation American conservative work ethic and frugality. Both my parents were the children of immigrants. Bigotry for them was an accepted reality. They were of the era when newspapers ran employment classifieds with the disclaimer “Catholics need not apply.”Hopefully each generation brings a more enlightened outlook. My parents were certainly more open-minded than their parents, and I’d like to think I’ve totally broken the bigotry mold. That said, I do sometimes need children to remind me that America’s future comes in all sizes and colors …Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He canbe reached at biffbreck@cs.com.


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