Tag Archives: Hispanics

Ship, Sheep, Shit, Sheet

On Mother’s Day about a month ago I posted 5 facts about my mother, except they were seven.  So many people commented that I’ve been thinking they deserved a blog post. And since I’m just leaving San Antonio from visiting her, now seems the right time to write it.

Her mother, my grandmother, never married which made her life very difficult in 1930s/1940s Puerto Rico. I consider this a type of IQ test for my friends. I’ve actually had friends exclaim, upon hearing for the first time that mi Abuela never married. “How can that be???” (I know that’s unkind but it happens to be true.) Abuela, who died in 2003, was in my view a spectacular person. She never went beyond first grade in Spanish, so could barely read or write, but had a copy of the Catholic missal and would ask me to find the Sunday reading for her every week. (We were Catholic but really only liked to go to church on Palm Sundays, when you got the lucky fronds.) My mother’s father, my grandfather, whom I knew quite well, was an accountant (!) and much to my mother’s embarrassment, I guess, Abuela and he maintained a relationship for quite a long time. He was married twice and with his first wife had a daughter, Juana, my mother’s half-sister who was born 1 day earlier than my mom. (He was a man of considerable achievement.) I got to meet her once about ten years ago and they might as well have been twins. Juana noticed my reaction and said, “It’s frightening, isn’t it.”

Despite her limited English, Abuela had an unfailing grasp of the Bingo numbers, 1-75.

She never learned to ride a bycicle and regrets it to this day. So Abuela and my mother’s family hailed from Santo Domingo, a poor neighborhood of Caguas, Puerto Rico. Caguas supported two high schools, one was better than the other, and on my mother’s first day in high school, the teachers discovered that she and Juana, who were of course classmates, were half-siblings but worse, my mother was, gasp, illegitimate. So to avoid the embarrassment, the school administration forced my mom to go to the other, lesser high school, an affront she has not forgotten to this day. I think this is why when we travel we always book the very best hotels. I actually heard my mother tell a travel agent once that the hotel she was suggesting was not expensive enough.

In her 40s she went back to school while working full time and got her bachelor’s degree in accounting in five years. Mom has worked almost all her life. Abuela lived with us and took care of the kids. I understand there are studies now suggesting this is one of the healthiest ways for children to be brought up. Once she realized that she could not get the more senior positions as an accountant in the Department of the Army without a college degree, my mother resolved to fix that. My father, who had just retired from the Army, told her she’d never make it!! (My father had many talents but I don’t think he was cut out to be a student.) My mother even passed calculus, which never ceases to amaze me, whose math education NEVER went beyond high school geometry.

She got very upset during college history class when she discovered the British had burned Washington DC in War of 1812. My mother takes things very emotionally. (She’s a Cancer with a Pisces moon, so if you know anything about Astrology that’s like living in your own personal hurricane ALL THE TIME.) She’s lately taken to watching Fox News, which for her functions much like the warm Gulf waters.

She moved out on my father seven times but always went back to him. Three times in one year. I remember that well. My junior year in high school. It would hijack this post to get into too much detail about their relationship. When we visited our relatives in Puerto Rico, the women tended to sit together and try to one-up each other with stories about the sufferings they endured as the result of the actions of their men. I could tell going into these sessions that my mother always felt she was quite competitive, but truth be told she never could crack the Champion’s League.

As native Spanish speaker and accountant, caused her no end of problems that her pronounciation of shit and sheet are identical. Whenever some particular embarrassment occurred at work as a result of this issue, we invariably would sit around the dining room table practicing the difference between the two, which she just could never hear.  One “shit” was said in less than a second; the other “shit” lasted five seconds or longer, sometimes until she became short of breath. My mother really is a native Spanish speaker; I just pretend to be one. American idioms always were fun too. We spent another evening explaining to her what “screw you” meant.

Also her pronounciation of Ship and Sheep, but these are less likely to come up in tax conversations.

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When Mexico had an Illegal Immigration Problem

I’ve been meaning to post this picture for some time. Participating in a great Tweetchat last night #Latism reminded me to do it.

Here’s a picture of a historical placard located in the Alamo in San Antonio. (I’m there often because my mom has a home in the Hill Country of TX.)

History Placard at the Alamo

Zooming in on the text:

I have no huge point to make here other than note, as I’ve done before, that irony is the most powerful force in the universe. (Also I was reminded by the folks in #Latism last night that, as this text implies, the Mexican Government also had a problem with the settlers owning slaves.)  And perhaps this can serve as a small antidote to the self-righteous and smug tone of many (not all) in the immigration debate.

Has Twitter Eaten My Brain? (Lesson 22)

It’s been more than a month since I wrote a blog post. Reasons:

1. I’ve started doing some hours as a consultant, so most of my pleasant “thinking and writing mornings” have disappeared. I need to develop a new routine.

2. I’m getting ready for a vacation to southern Africa. I have two more nights of good sleep left before it’s wheels up, and stay tuned to this space for pictures and reports of what we hope will be excellent adventures. My interest in the world has many antecedents, but one in particular was the show Discovery that ABC aired in the 60s and 70s as part of its weekend children’s programming. Perhaps some of you remember it as well? Hearing the jazzy score after four decades is Proustian in its effect.

3. I haven’t had anything to say that I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Is this scary? I can’t quite decide myself, but generally I quite like the discipline of having to convey ideas in short, digestible snippets, although admittedly the “telegraph” language and spelling used in twitter just seems to confuse/annoy some people.

I keep a list of topics, ideas I might want to blog about, but none of them seemed worthy of an entire posting.

  • On Diversity. One of the ways I can tell that Latinos haven’t really made it into corporate America yet is how easy it is to use my surname, straight and unadulterated, as a userid on business-oriented websites. On the Harvard Business Review website, I was able to walk right in as “camedina”. At the CIA I was just plain “medina”. No medina25, no convoluted acronyms. Medina is a pretty common Spanish surname; according to About.com it ranks 30th in frequency of use in Spanish-speaking countries. (In the US the 30th most common surname is King.)  The About.com list of 100 most common US surnames makes for good perusing. The two most common Spanish surnames in the US are Garcia and Martinez, which come in at 18 and 19, with Rodriguez just outside of the top 20.
  • More on Diversity. There have been some comments on my post from a few weeks ago on the essential Latino heritage of the US. I’ve really no interest in argument, because I’ve learned over the years that debate never really seems to change most people’s views. I’ve been struck recently, however, by the dynamic impact that new waves of immigrants are having on US society.  For example, the south Asian, specifically Indian, contribution to the US economy cannot be overestimated. I’ve read estimates that upwards of 25% of Silicon Valley startups are Indian-run firms. Personally, I think the most prosperous future economic scenario for the US is decidedly multicultural.
  • On the Difference between Government and Private Industry. As I dip a toe or two into work outside of government, my first impression is that the two are more similar than not. Both probably have about the same proportion of good/dumb ideas and competent/incompetent staff. The key advantage for private industry, however, appears to be that it can kill bad ideas/projects a lot more easily than the federal government seems to be able to.
  • Lesson 22 from a CIA manager: Be clear about what kind of management problem you’re facing. Sure, there are many sticky situations the artful manager can unstick, but be careful to diagnose problems correctly. There is a whole set of problems that managers can never solve. They can only be solved by the passage of time (and generations). Many of these can only be managed like some kind of chronic illness. The Arab-Israeli dispute comes to mind, for example. Really difficult people are also likely to “outclass” you. Remember, you will only spend at best a few years with this individual who suffers from really difficult emotional issues or pathologies. My motto was: If your parents weren’t able to correct your behavior, there’s very little chance I ever will.

What I Learned from the Texas Historical Commission

As a Latina, specifically Puerto Rican, I’ve watched the events in Arizona with considerable personal interest. (Because I spent my middle and high school years in El Paso, Texas, I also feel I have some understanding of the border culture in the southwest.) I usually visit Arizona at least once a year, I have friends who live there, but it disturbs me now to think that the color of my skin, definitely brown, might make me feel less at ease the next time I go there. Assuming there is a next time.

There’s nothing inappropriate with the debate about how best to deal with the immigration issue. But something seems to have happened in Arizona to turn the debate into something bigger, different, and rather ugly. Many in Arizona seem to question the legitimacy and/or desirability of the Latino role in their state. The Latinos don’t belong here, they seem to be arguing, or we need to cap their influence.

¡No mas!

The Hispanic culture is antithetical to the American spirit.

So it was with some surprise during a recent visit to Texas that I read about how arguably the most iconic representative of the American spirit–the cowboy–is actually a Spanish transplant into American culture. Now, I should have known this but it wasn’t until I read the pamphlet, written by the Texas Historical Commission, on the Chisolm Trail, that I realized the essentially Hispanic nature of the cowboy tradition.  Quoting the Texas Historical Commission:

The hardy breed of livestock known as the Texas longhorn descended from Spanish Andalusian cattle brought over by early 16th-century explorers, missionaries, and ranchers…In the early 1800s, Spain lost control of the region and abandoned the area, but ranchero and vaquero traditions lingered, affecting the look, equipment and vernacular of America’s cowboys. Terms like lasso, remuda, lariat, mustang, chaps, and bandana became a part of everyday speech, and America’s cowboys adopted the Spanish traditions of open-range ranching, branding, and round-ups.

Who knew? The article in Wikipedia on Cowboy goes into even more detail, noting that open-range ranching began in the medieval era in Spain. (It even discusses the Arabic and possibly Persian influences on the vaquero tradition.) The American word buckaroo is thought to be a corruption of the Spanish word vaquero.

What are we to make of the essentially Spanish origins of the great American Western tradition? Should we make all Arizonans turn in their cowboy hats, spurs, and chaps? Or maybe Arizona can borrow the Texas Board of Education to rewrite the history of the American West?

The truth, uncomfortable for some, is that Spanish culture has always been a primary influence on the United States. I would have more respect for the proponents of anti-immigration measures if they could somehow make their legal arguments without casting cultural aspersions. I have no problem with enforcing the law. But I do have a problem with imposing a monocultural and false version of America.