La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

My Photo
Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Simple Request

The most common complaint I hear about how difficult it is to learn English is that the words are not spelled phonetically like Spanish words are. Trying to learn to speak English from reading study guides or Spanish/English dictionaries is frustrating, because one is left still unsure of how to pronounce the words just from looking at the way they're written.

I've become familiar with the vernacular spellings used by migrants with little formal education. They sometimes make Spanish even more phonetic than it already is, and shun the B in favor of V, since the two letters make an almost identical sound in Spanish, anyway. Many have written more by sending text messages on their new cell phones than they did in their everyday lives before they came here.

While out walking my dogs yesterday, I found a crumpled piece of notebook paper lying alongside the sidewalk, and the writing on it caught my eye:

"ai nid ei jercot on leyers end ai want jailaids on all heair"

It is a simple request, written phonetically in English but with the letters having a mixture of English and Spanish pronounciations. Keeping in mind that the Spanish J sounds like our H, if you read it out loud, it makes perfect sense.

Deciphering the note reminded me a bit of trying to make out the meaning of an early 19th century diary written by a New England farm wife. Vernacular spellings were common here back then, too, when formal schooling for most people was spotty at best. Of the migrants I know, most of the Mexicans have made it through about the 8th or 9th grade, and among the Guatemalans, 4th grade is about the extent of their schooling.

I wanted to share the note, partially because I am fascinated by language in all its uses, and partially to make a couple points. The first one being that this note is emblematic of how challenging it is to communicate even simple requests in a language other than your own. This is a difficulty faced by many immigrants, and can be quite serious if the problem is a matter of health or safety, life or death. The note shows that someone who knew how to speak the words had tried to write them in such a way that one who doesn't speak English could later repeat them accurately by reading the note outloud.

Secondly, consider our immigration system, with all its bureaucracy and difficulties. Few people try to navigate it without the help of a lawyer, but many have been misled by their attorneys, or become hopelessly lost in the system after trying to do everything right themselves. Now imagine trying to approach this system, and tackle the paperwork, deadlines, roadblocks, exclusions and exceptions, having only an elementary school education. I'm not talking about stupid people. I'm talking about people who know more about life, death, happiness, work, and surviving corruption and violence, than I will ever know. But with education comes more than literacy. There comes a confidence with all things written that one who lacks an education does not have. That lack of confidence can make some things so intimidating, that a man who has lept onto moving trains and crossed half a continent enduring regular beatings and robbings can find himself frightened to enter an office or sign a paper.

I'm not saying this to make excuses for not immigrating legally. For most of the poor and unskilled migrants who wish to work here, there is no legal recourse, period. I just feel that most people who talk about reforming the immigration system know very little about the people it needs to serve. And, I feel that there's a serious lack of compassion and understanding toward migrants, and the problems they face, from the horrific conditions they have fled, to just wanting to get a decent haircut. This note is a little step into their shoes.