The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, February 07, 2004  

And German and Italian and Gaelic

Tanya Barrientos, one of my favorite Philadelphia Inquirer columnists, today has plenty of smart words about the propensity of politicians to repeat history, in this case the contemporary variant of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner,” roughly translated as, “I am a pastry.”

These days, in the absence of a German-American voting bloc, that as our relationship with Germany has unnecessarily deteriorated under the Bush administration, the lingua of the day, as Barrientos observes, is Spanish. (“Watch Your Language!”)

Barrientos, who justifiably has had enough, writes:

Many years ago, when I was a reporter in Dallas, I heard a City Council candidate tell a group of Mexican American voters, “Necesito su pollo.” Which means he needed their chicken. What he meant to say was that he needed their apoyo -- which means[,] “support.”

Using sub-Berlitz español to connect with us as a group is condescending at worst, and ridiculous at best.

Here’s my advice. Go ahead and eat the taco. Whack the piñata at the rally. We’ll enjoy the show.

But for goodness sake, after you slip on that sombrero, just address the issues in English and move along.

Sounds reasonable to me. It really is kind of stupid and offensive that many people assume that because another person has a Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish surname he or she must of course speak Spanish, or worse, would prefer to be addressed in that language. There truly is no good reason to assume this is the case. (For example, Linda Chavez, the right-wing, self-appointed spokesman for all things Hispanic -- because, I guess, her father is Spanish, Spanish as in from Spain -- does not speak the language.)

I have some experience with this. I can read and translate Italian (and German and French, and, to a lesser extent, Dutch and Swedish, and more recently, and to an even lesser degree, Spanish), but please don’t ask me, let alone expect me to be able, to speak Italian. My grasp of the language is far too rusty to actually converse in that tongue.

I’ve heard all too many times, “Oh, you learned Italian at home growing up,” an observation offered with a certainty that was patronizing and belittling.

“No,” I answered, “we spoke only English at home. I learned Italian in college. Besides, my mother is Irish-American.” (I’ve tried studying Gaelic a few times, but frankly, I think behind Finnish, and Finnish only, it’s the most difficult Western language to learn. Sorry, Mom. Mom who does not read or speak Gaelic. She’s American, okay?)

Isn’t it weird how people assume, based on one’s surname, that the name represents the entirety of one’s heritage? I have nieces and nephews who carry the Capozzola name whose lineage is but one-quarter Italian. Will they face the same assumption, or has the melting pot melted enough that kids who today are 18, or 13, or five, think nothing of such things? Conversely, I have nephews whose genealogical lines are half Italian but who carry a surname that is German in origin.

Ethnicity is an odd thing. My experience has been that in some cities it counts for and means nothing (e.g., Washington), while in others it counts for and means almost everything (e.g., New York). When I moved from Washington to New York I was struck, time and again, by how often people sprinkled their conversations and their descriptions of others with references to ethnicity.

A co-worker in New York once offered, “I’m dating this new girl. She’s really terrific. Nice Irish girl. Irish-Catholic.” I remember thinking when I heard that characterization, “No one in Washington would ever say such a thing.”

Another time, while I was new at the magazine, I was looking for the office of a certain employee I had not met. “Oh, he’s over near ____’s office. He’s the Greek guy.”

Um . . . okay. So I’m what? Looking for a swarthy sorta fella?

Strange, huh?

Anyway, should I ever be preparing to meet Barrientos -- and there was that one night when I was supposed to look out for Beth Gillin, also of the Inquirer, and Barrientos at a reading by Philadelphia novelist and blogger Jennifer Weiner at the-bookstore-whose-name-dare-not-be-spoken-here-because-of-all-that-union-stuff-that-I’ve-really-got-to-sit-down-and-read-and-analyze-one-of-these-days -- remind me to keep my rudimentary Spanish at home.

As if you needed to.

[Post-publication addendum: Early in 1987, back when I was a neoconservative, I went to a job interview at an interest group of a decidedly conservative bent, closely aligned with the Republican party. The meetings went well, I thought, though I didn’t receive an offer, which was just as well since I accepted a much better position not more than two weeks later. As I was being escorted to the elevators one of the interviewers offered, in what I suspect he thought was an innocent and offhand comment, “You know, you’re not at all what we were expecting.” “Really,” I asked, “what do you mean?” “Well, you know, what with your last name and all.” “I don’t think I understand,” I responded. “You don’t . . . you know . . . with your Italian last name . . . You really don’t look the part.” I was speechless and flabbergasted. “The part”? Oh, I thought, I’m so sorry to disappoint you. I’m sorry I’m not the greasy daigo wop you were anticipating. And by the way, pal, you might want to stop watching those moronic “Godfather” movies. 1987. The mind reels.]

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