Friday, May 9, 2008


By Rafael Martinez Alequin

New York City has been from its very birth a city of immigrants, when the Dutch arrived and snatched this land from the real Native Americans, whom they called Indians due to Christopher Columbus's error.

Today New York City's status as a city of foreigners not only remains unchanged, but more than ever in its history it is home to New Yorkers the range of whose roots spans practically every region of this planet. Over150 languages are spoken here. It's my opinion that if serious research is done, this number will total over 200, if we take into account those languages that due to reasons of political imperialism are classified as dialects.

Almost half of today's New Yorkers come from other countries, and since the 1980s immigrants from many ethnicities have brought back life to communities of this city that during the 60s and 70s had become boring, sleepy villages where commercial and cultural life had slowed down almost to a standstill. Such a community is Flushing, in the borough of Queens, which has been brought back to life by immigrants of various ethnicities, most of them from Asia. I could just as well have chosen other New York neighborhoods as examples.

The probability that a New Yorker whose ancestors settled here one hundred years ago or more--Italians, Jews, Irish, Polish, among others--will find someone who speaks English as a second or third language is huge. Arguably, four out of every ten people, if not more, when one takes into account the undocumented, speak a language that is not English. With a new wave of immigration that goes back only twenty years, the possibility that a person speaking English will do so with a foreign accent is also huge.

Unfortunately, there are still people with a backwoods mentality in this great city to whom a foreign accent awakens all sorts of absurd prejudices. One of the most ingrained is that if someone pronounces English with a foreign accent, in the mind of the Neo-Troglodyte, this person ipso facto loses all of his or her intelligence and ingenuity. If this accent is that of a Hispanic, as opposed to, for example, that of a Francophone, this prejudice surfaces with shocking brutality. The one who reacts to the person who has this type of an accent turns into a jerk right before the very eyes of the victim and of other witnesses. Not a few times I've seen this drama unfold in front of my eyes and ears during the fifty-seven years that I have lived in this nation and in this city. I made it my business to keep my mother tongue — Spanish.

The respect that I have felt toward my professors and mentors, whose intellectual and academic prowess, in addition to their political and moral integrity, has earned them fame and acclaim, has bordered on idolatry; I declare this unabashedly. Nevertheless, on various occasions I have seen these men and women in situations where they are not known, in which as they try to express themselves in an English that is correct albeit with a strong Spanish accent, they are ridiculed and belittled by English-speaking people who ignorantly confuse content with form and treat them as if they were real morons incapable of having the knowledge and skills that they have, which are quite superior to those of their persecutor, and for which they have repeatedly earned recognition and praise.

Whoever disparages someone for speaking English with a foreign accent, risks looking like a genuine imbecile, especially if the person whom he or she disparages is someone whose excellence has been acknowledged, be it as a journalist, lexicographer, novelist, philosopher or politician. The people whom I saw and heard being subjected to this stupid prejudice, were and are, precisely, well-known journalists, novelists, philosophers, politicians, and their accent, have a better knowledge of the English language than their persecutor. Those of us who witnessed these incidents invariably agreed that the one who was really ignorant and gross was the one making fun of our learned scholar's accent.

But, let me add this: to disparage someone because he or she speaks with a foreign accent, no matter what this person's intellectual level is, and to further do so in public, is a lack of good manners, and when it's a native New Yorker who makes himself look ridiculous by trying to ridicule his fellow human being's accent, it just shows that this person doesn't have a scintilla of civility. This is an even bigger flaw if the one who disparages the person works at an agency that is there to serve the constituents of this city regardless of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their creed, their gender, their sexual orientation, or their accent. It's high time that we denounce this lack of respect for what it is: discrimination, besides the fact that it's sheer, asinine nonsense.
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