Who’s Afraid of the Mexicans?
By Diana Gallagher
I have two selves. One raises her hand and answers every question about Sor Juana and Garcilaso de la Vega while her classmates search through the textbook. She’s never received lower than an A in any Spanish course. She remembers January inMexico, bargaining with taxi drivers and walking cerca de Las Quintas.
The other walks into 7-11 inSouthampton,New York. Walks past the men outside in sweatshirts and jeans who speak Spanish in low voices. Walks past their eyes. Never looks up.
“I hate when people call all of the migrant workers ‘Mexicans,’” I’ll say to friends. “Because they’re not.” I’ll cite my research paper (written in Spanish, no less) that although Mexicans lead the most recent immigration wave to Long Island, they’re joined by El Salvadorians, Colombians, Guatemalans in fields and on construction sites. They’re not all illegal. They’re not standing on street corners in order to heckle women. And the policies of U.S.A.-perpetuated free trade agreements such as NAFTA have helped push these people to cross the border. I feel noble when I say these things. Educated. Sympathetic.
So why did I pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing instead of advocacy work? Or teaching English inSouth America? Discussing Pablo Neruda in hushed academic hallways?
I was accepted by theUniversityofTexasatEl Paso, the only bilingual MFA program in the country. Sunshine. So many genres to write in. So much Spanish.
“What do you think?” I finished on the phone.
“High crime,” my father said.
“You’re not really thinking about going there, are you?” my mother said.
Each day, my father e-mailed me news stories aboutCiudad Juarez, the city that facesEl Pasoacross the Mexico-U.S. border:
“Police find another mass grave.”
“Female murders inCiudad Juarezhidden for years.”
With all the sagacity of a college senior, I thought, “Well, the mass graves weren’t inEl Paso.” I’d just stay on the Estados Unidos side. One of my professors waxed lyrically on the city: “You’ll love it—so much culture!” I like culture.
Finally, my parents agreed to a visit. On the connecting flight fromDallastoEl Paso, we watched the land fade from green to brown. Highways ran from gray to dirt-colored. Buildings shrank to scrubby bushes. Long, long stretches of nothing.
The dry June air reached ninety degrees that evening. We drove past strip malls and down I-10 to the university. On the left side of the highway,Mexico. Same dirt hills asEl Paso, same houses crammed together. On one hill, the words: “La Biblia es la verdad. Leela.” (The Bible is the truth. Read it.) On both sides of the border, silence. Silence as we drove into what the map depicted as downtownEl Paso: stores with Spanish signs gated atsix o’clockon a Saturday night, people sitting on the curbs and watching us drive by. No music. No lights. Silence in the gated houses around the university. Silence on Sunday when we took one last drive to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.
I wanted rhythm, shouts, laughter. I wanted to watch people dance and write about them, perhaps join the dance myself. I wanted words. But words were not there for me.
So I chose graduate school inSouthamptonand soon realized thatSouthampton, though notEl Paso, is not upstateNew YorkorWadingRiver, the smallLong Islandtown where I grew up. Instead, it is old wealth on ocean shore and new wealth in Porsches onMain Street. And afterMain Streetturns intoNorth Sea Roadand meets County Road 39, it is group after group of men waiting on the sidewalk by stop signs and bus stops. Some sit. Most stand. I wonder where they’re from. What they do when they get picked up. If they’ll get picked up today. If they have families.
But I know I won’t ask. I won’t say anything.
… My friend forwards me a job posting for a Spanish-speaking library assistant. Qualifications include “advanced level of writing, fluency in speaking.”
What’s the difference between fluency and survival? I can navigate us off the bus and to the market, but what if you speak too quickly, if your accent blurs the syllables? Can we talk about something meaningful?
Back in Advanced Spanish Conversation, my partner and I were assigned to discuss politics inVenezuela,Bolivia, andChilein front of the class. “Let’s just wing it,” my partner had said. I’m not usually one for winging. I’m not sure how much I’d have to say about politics in my own country. But we winged it, and it worked, and our professor gave us a perfect score.