After my wonderful give-and-take about Childing on Wednesday with the hosts and listeners of WLRN public radio’s acclaimed Topical Currents program, which airs throughout Miami proper and Southern Florida, I arranged for an Uber driver to whisk me to Miami airport.
When I climbed into the car, I asked my driver if she knew at which terminal my particular airline was located. She froze. She told me she didn’t speak English. She had GPS and used that to get her riders to their destinations. I switched to Spanish, much to her evident relief.
Nathaly, who is Cuban, told me she’d only been in the U.S. six weeks, and had already landed several jobs to support herself and her 2-month-old baby. While she was at work, extended family members, with whom she was staying, gladly took care of her baby.
She said matter-of-factly that she worked about 80 hours a week, and though she lamented that she couldn’t be there for her child — whose cherubic photo graced her keychain dangling from the ignition — whenever she might wish, she nonetheless already felt her life was far better here than it was in Cuba.
Nathaly, whose exuberance was contagious, didn’t feel sorry for herself in the slightest. She said she liked being in a place where she could speak her mind, where women were treated as any male’s equal, and where she surely would flourish.
She shared with me her plans to start studying communications at a community college, after somehow sandwiching into her already-hectic schedule intensive English-language courses, and how this would pave the way for her baby daughter’s success in her own right. Nathaly was on her way. I had not the slightest doubt that she would succeed, and that I would be telling people one day that I knew her when.
At the airport, nearly all employees there spoke Spanish as they went about their work with gusto, though of course they could, for the most part, switch to English when need be. One exasperated man in line with me said to his wife, intentionally at a loud level so we all would hear him, “Hardly anyone speaks American here.”
The poor deluded soul. Everyone working here — from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and other Latino countries — spoke American. These first generation Americans work so hard that they put the rest of us to shame, and they put into practice and advocate for essential Constitutional rights in a way that should make us all proud.
Their actions ‘speak American’ louder than words.
Oh, how American they already all, lovers of open societies who taken nothing for granted, and whose work ethic is a marvel. And all those hours they have their noses to the grindstone? It’s their pleasure. And they gladly pay taxes to Uncle Sam on all the hours they work, because to them it means their kids go to good school and that they can enjoy good and essential services that often are a pipe-dream in their homelands.
Reminds me of my Greek grandparents, who worked their fingers to the bone to take advantage of the American dream. They arrived dirt-poor, spoke no English at first. My father, for one, made the most of his American citizenship, excelling in a way that motivates me each and every day to make him proud.
My father was teased mercilessly as a school child for his Greek accent that he developed a lisp that was still detectable even late in life whenever he was under stress — and sadly, he had a lot of stressful things to deal with in the latter time of his life. But nothing could keep my dad from fulfilling all his promise. A person of unequalled perseverance and drive and discipline, my dad was never one to make excuses or pretexts for setbacks, and as a result, he succeeded — thankfully those qualities of him have rubbed off on me, his youngest son, in spades.
Many of us have siblings or extended family members who speak ‘American,’ in the bogus sense to which this gentleman in line with me was referring; but they have absolutely no sense of duty to others much less to open societies. They live only for themselves, and in my own experience, can be extraordinarily adept at conning, lying, cheating and stealing, and far worse, without the slightest whiff of conscience. All that matters is their personal gain; and if it comes at the expense of others, even to the harm of others, it actually is a ‘high’ for them.
They are as ‘un-American’ as it gets.
To this ilk, the notion of duty to others, much less on behalf of a greater or higher or common good, is laughable. Don’t get me wrong — they can pretend to care, and do so quite convincingly.
But actual caring, actual sacrifice, actual duty? Forgetaboutit. To them, shortcuts are the name of the game.
We may well have a president of the United States who falls into this category — someone who definitely knows how to pretend to be tough, but isn’t capable of the real deal, someone who outrageously claimed that his many Ponzi Scheme-ish projects (like Trump University and the Trump Network) are sorts of sacrifices, but who has never actually had to be tough, never had to risk anything, much less has made anything smacking of sacrifice for the good of our or any other society.
Narcissistic self-aggrandizement is all, for such folks.
I wish we all ‘spoke American’ like my Uber driver in Miami and all those primarily Spanish speakers at Miami International Airport do. They would make my Dad so proud.
Afterword: It is absolutely scandalously, downright un-American, that our nation’s children are not learning 3, 4, 5 languages when they are at an age in which their exquisitely malleable minds can absorb languages like sponges absorb water. What an ‘American’ gesture it would be, what an investment in open societies, to give all of our school-aged children the opportunity to do what they do best while their is this once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity — to learn languages, and in so doing, build bridges between all peoples. The budget cutters and bean counters are cutting out all enrichment programs in public schools across the land, but language programs are not a luxury; they are a necessity if our society, a nation of immigrants, is to flourish and serve as a beacon for other societies. More on this in another blog.