Tuesday, February 01, 2005

My Life as a Reformed Gringo

This kicked off my series of essays on The Back Word, a website of writing about Texas. The folk who ran it lost interest and took down all the pages. Fortunately, I have all the Word files, and this is the first of four published there:


For most parents, a child's exposure to a foreign language is mildly interesting. But for me, the news that my son Sam started studying Spanish this fall in the fifth grade stirs strong emotions. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the gringo minority in the town of Mission, in deep South Texas-- pop. 13,000, Spanish wasn't just a language. It marked the fault line that divided two cultures, Anglo and Hispanic.

Young gringos learned early that we could treat the Spanish language--and Hispanic culture--with indifference, if not outright hostility. When I was in the third grade, the teacher asked a new student, Frank, to read in the front of the class. A migrant or perhaps a new arrival from Mexico, Frank didn't speak English. He stood there utterly baffled, and began to cry. Almost 40 years later, I still remember Frank's humiliation as a perfect symbol of gringo arrogance.

Many gringo (that is, Anglo) adults along the border would shrug at the Franks of the world and declare, "Hey, this is the United States, suck it up and learn English." Compassion for or even curiosity about the majority of our neighbors ranked low among gringos' virtues. Instead, I grew up in an atmosphere of condescension toward Hispanics and Mexico. Those who thought otherwise seemed subversive in the suspicious culture of Texas at that time.

I thought and acted like a typical gringo. Although the Rio Grande Valley incubated Tex-Mex, one of the great styles of regional music, I plugged my ears to the sounds around me in favor of Grand Funk Railroad, Yes, and Deep Purple. Despite the permanent opportunity for immersion learning, I had no interest in Spanish, and neither did my late mother, a native Texan of German-Jewish stock who glowered when store clerks misread her dark looks and spoke to her in Spanish.

In high school, gringos joked that Spanish ALM (audio-lingual method) really stood for "Anglos Learning Mexican." Yearbook photos for Mission High School's Pan American Club showed a dwindling number of gringo members between 1972 and 1976. We derided nearby Pan American College as "Tamale Tech."

What did we think about Mexico itself, visible across the Rio Grande after a short drive down South Conway Avenue? The country was terra incognita, a mysterious and terrifying place that our parents warned us about (singer Kinky Friedman captured the paranoia in his song "Asshole from El Paso," with the lyric, "We keep our kids away from Mexico."). Drugs, violence, federales, poverty, disorder, people not like us dominated the skyline of our ignorance. We learned absolutely nothing about Mexico that didn't involve the Alamo and the Texas Revolution. Likewise, teachers spared our young minds any inkling of the bloody early history of the Valley, replete with land grabs and summary executions of Mexicans by the Texas Rangers. However, kids did enjoy piñatas at birthday parties.

Until I vacationed in Mexico City and Morelia in my mid-30s, I never ventured more than 200 yards into Mexico. As a senior in high school, an English teacher and his wife took a date and me across the river to Reynosa. As I wrote in my journal on May 16, 1976: "Hot, nervous, but different. We ate at Sam's and later had drinks (Coke for me thank you) in the Imperial and buzzed through several curio shops."

Did any aspect of Mexico capture gringos' interest and appreciation? Well, yes: the red-light districts. One conversation with two local luminaries on the attractions of Reynosa seemed so compelling that I recorded the sordid details in my journal soon after I graduated from high school. From June 19, 1976 (names and expletives deleted):

"How's Boystown these days?" Willie asked.

Waylon said the action was OK. Willie took something of a dim view of the area, but Waylon sounded quite enthusiastic.

"Wow! One of the places really has nice a atmosphere with columns, plants, chandeliers," he informed us.

"Sounds more like a bank," I said.

"Well, if you want a piece of ass you can get it cheaper (and cleaner) here, but I go for the atmosphere," Waylon said.

"Once," he added, "I found one who knew my older brother real well."

"When I first moved down here," Willie said, "I'd go down there and stay for hours just talking to the girls and looking at the places."

The topic of Nuevo Laredo whorehouses rose in the conversation.

"Well some guys tell me, 'Them Laredo whores is the best around,' " Willie joked in a mock thick Texas accent. "And I tell them, 'Well, hell, I'm going there this afternoon, so I'll be sure to check 'em out.' "

"You'd be surprised at what goes on in this town," Waylon told me. I can imagine.

And yet in an awkward, unconscious way I edged away from gringoisimo. Call it my mild form of teenage rebellion. Whatever her antipathy to Spanish, my mother's life philosophy--"Be friends with everybody"--fostered an accepting attitude. Fragments of the Hispanic world lodged in my memory, from a young age. I remember thumbing through comic-book novelas¸ or graphic soap operas, when my mother visited her hairdresser in South Mission, on the other side of the railroad tracks. I read Richard Vasquez's powerful novel Chicano when I was 13. Before long, I started listening to music groups that I still enjoy, such as Malo (led by Jorge Santana, Carlos's brother) and El Chicano, an L.A. band that performed dreamily romantic songs. To aggravate my younger brother after we started driving, I tuned the AM radio in our family's Chevy Impala to a Mexican music station, prompting a yelp of disdain whenever he turned on the car.

I must admit that for years I mooned over Hispanic girls, with names like Dalia, Delia, Hilda, Olalla, and Maria Luisa. Especially Luisa, with whom I shared a love of writing. With a beautiful choir-trained voice, straight black hair tumbling to her waist and a calm face that fit my image of an Aztec princess, Luisa won this gringo's heart during my senior year in high school. We even stole moments to hold hands in the guidance counselor's office. I asked her to the favorites dance, but her father did not want a gringo to take her. So I never did slow-dance to Chicago's "Color My World" with Luisa, my enchanting Aztec princess.

As an adult, I've tried to fill in the blank spaces of my knowledge, what I refused to learn or notice as a youth. I've studied Spanish enough that I can almost speak it as well as Ernest Borgnine's character in The Wild Bunch. Mi amiga querida buena (myvery dear friend) in Mexico, Ana Gilda, encourages me to chat with her online in Spanish, and I'm improving. I follow the ups and downs of Vicente Fox's administration and other Latin news, to the extent I can in U.S. newspapers. I became a big fan of telenovelas, with their easy-to-follow dialogue such as "Idiota!" and "Mi hermano es muerto! (my brother is dead)." I smiled while watching the movie Traffic when I realized characters spoke Spanish with Mexican accents, which I could distinguish from the Puerto Rican and Dominican accents I hear in New York.

I like the accordion-driven norteño music of groups like Los Tigres del Norte, which takes me straight back to Hidalgo County. (In an example of what goes around comes around, a Los Tigres song, "El Gringo y El Mexicano," refers to McAllen, Texas, the city next to Mission. I've teased Ana Gilda that I want to write a story about us called "El Gringo y La Mexicana").

Why does any of this matter? A middle-aged man reconsiders his roots and starts digging in the loam. He likes what he finds. Call it a story about one man's continuing engagement with a part of the world he once considered alien and irrelevant, even threatening. Now, I can appreciate another society and language that, by reason of where I lived, remains part of who I am.

News from Latin America no longer comes from the dark side of the moon (that is, beyond the south bank of the Rio Grande) but from distinct places that matter to me. In other words, I have enlarged my world. When I see Mexican and Central American men waiting on street corners in the Northeast looking for day work, they are no longer a faceless "them," but men with a language, a history, a place.

In these days, a big world view matters. America's efforts to remake the Middle East may suffer from the gringo attitude I know so well: "We know what's best for you, just watch and do things our way, and learn our language." Is that an effective way to treat a neighbor, or to reform a wounded country? Certainly I thought so at one time. Just ask my friend Velma, she knows.

Back at Mission High School, I once told her that the U.S. should just "take over" Mexico and that would fix the problems there in a jiffy. Rightly incensed, she recalled this exchange many years later. I forgot about it (a microcosm of U.S.-Latin relations?) and could only reply, "Oh, I said that?" Back then, ignorance supported blissful assurance. These days, I think differently. Velma and I even call each other primo and prima--cousins.

At the same time, I am who I am. Reformed, but not neutered. I emotionally connect with other gringos on the same wavelength. Robert Earl Keen's sweetly melancholy song "Gringo Honeymoon" speaks to me with its sense of wandering between two worlds; the stanzas include,

We took a rowboat 'cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side.

We were standin' on a mountain top
Where the cactus flowers grow
I was wishin' that the world would stop
When you said we'd better go

ZZ Top's "Mescalero" album includes two wonderful songs primarily in Spanish, with what I now term an ASS sound: "Anglos Speaking Spanish." I know, because that's what I sound like (again, think of Ernest Borgnine).

To my delight, even my Borgninesque Spanish makes sense. Not long ago, while I waited at JFK airport to board a flight to El Salvador, I noticed a man who desperately needed to make a phone call. However, the security guards would not let him leave the area to find a pay phone. Speaking only Spanish, the man's anxiety became more obvious by the minute. As I watched, a famous Jewish teaching kicked in: "If I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?" Rabbi Hillel was right: I thought, the time to act is now. I told the guards the Salvadoreño could call on my cell phone. They looked surprised, but agreed to my idea.

"Excusame, señor," I said, catching his attention, "Usted necesita usar telephone? Llame en los Estados Unidos?" I held out my cell phone. He gratefully took it, and I showed him how to dial. He made the call, then returned the phone to me as the line crept ahead. No longer strangers, the man and I shared a moment.

I'll tell Sam this story. He will learn at a young age, as I did not, that language skills and an open attitude can make the world a friendlier place. Sam will be a reformed gringo from the beginning.

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

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