Sitting in a car dealership in Los Angeles several months ago, I noticed a man who was about 55 years old. He had a tall and fair complexion but was speaking Spanish and asking for information about his car. Across the desk was a young man about 22 years old, short, dark-skinned. He answered, "Excuse me! How can I help you?"
The client immediately shot back: "How is it you don't speak Spanish? Mmm! It's a shame that living in Los Angeles you do not speak your own language. If you look more Mexican than me," emphasized the client, looking around for an acknowledgement to support his unfortunate comments.
The young man blushed and asked the man with his hands to wait a minute, but not before venting his frustration and telling the client in English:
"We are in the United States and it does not matter if we live in LA or not. The language that we have to use to understand each other is English," he said as he left.
Moments later, a bilingual worker came to the counter and the client continued to complain. "How come a cashier in this position is not able to respond in Spanish? If workers do not want to speak or do not know Spanish they should not be in this position." The bilingual worker simply apologized and tried to serve the customer.
Once he finished, the client went to sit down by my side, waiting for his car. I asked him if he knew how to speak English, and he stared at me as if expecting a negative comment to his previous statement.
He said, "Yes," but he emphasized that he preferred to speak Spanish. In addition, he reaffirmed: "This was Mexico before and look at the young guy, he looks more Oaxaquita than anything and he does not speak Spanish. It's a shame they are from Mexico or of Mexican descendent and they don't even speak the language."
Then I asked him if he considered his comments about the cashier to be unfair or even discriminatory and he responded: "Of course not. We Mexicans do not discriminate, we are not racist people. All I'm asking is to be addressed in Spanish, that's it."
He looked upset because the type of conversation we were having. I asked for his name and he didn't want to give it to me, however, all I got to know was that he was from Mexico and he has been living in the United States for the last 24 years.
What amazed me most about the incident is how often many of us do not emphasize the importance of learning English. We cannot forget that we live in the United States and no matter how big the Latino community is, or any other community, the predominant language in this country is English -- and it would do us all well to learn and speak it.
The argument that this was Mexico before, or that the Latino community is so large in Los Angeles that now everyone should learn Spanish, is fundamentally flawed. We cannot segregate and isolate ourselves from the rest of the society. This does not mean we have to lose our roots, but we must learn English if we want to prosper in an predominantly English speaking country. We must learn to respect people who do not speak Spanish, whether they look Latino or not.
Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American writer in his book "Hunger of Memory" suggests that the public language must be one that unites us all and that must be English. If one is bilingual or speaks more languages; that's great -- but it's greater if all communities in public could understand and communicate with each other.
I really doubt that the Mexican man at the car dealership spoke much English and if he did, he hid it very well -- he did not waste one word. But his arrogance, ignorance and lack of tolerance didn't permit him to see how outrageous his behavior truly was.
Out of all negative attitudes displayed by the old man in those ten minutes, however, the most serious was the lack of tolerance and respect for the young guy. These are essential values to treat others with, especially if we, as Latinos, are asking for the same in return from the rest of the nation.
When I was leaving the dealership, I had the opportunity to see the young guy, taking his break, and smoking on a bench outside. I asked him if he was born in Mexico or the United States and if his parents were immigrants or were born in this country?
He told me that he was born in the U.S. and his parents were Mexican, but he had grown most of his life in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and never had the opportunity to learn Spanish.