I believe most would agree immigration ranks as a hot topic among the list of national concerns, which I can understand given where my family lives. Frankly, however, my attitude on the matter has been one of general ambivalence. Don’t get me wrong; it’s something that needs to be addressed, especially considering the impact on employment, schools and health care. By the same token, you won’t find me holding a musket on the Texas boarder or complaining over having to press 2 on my touch-tone pad for English. What I’m saying is the issue requires a common sense approach in developing a workable solution that takes into account the long-term outcomes. Opinions and perception vary, of course, depending on where you go.
When I moved to Chicago, due to my unfamiliarity with the city, I used an agent in locating a place to live, and as we walked up to a street-level flat, the guy stopped me. “Just so you know, the renovations on this place are just finishing up, so there’s going to be a bunch of Mexicans working in there,” he said before adding, “But don’t worry, there’s a white guy keeping an eye on them.”
The seriousness in his warning caused me to chuckle. I worked for a residential homebuilder in Houston, Texas where Hispanics made up 95% of the construction labor in a market that, at the time, churned out over 54,000 homes a year. (Incidentally, I picked that apartment, and after moving in, I got a bunch of extra work done by the crew because of how I treated them.) Those numbers are only a slight indication of what a linchpin the Hispanic populace is to the Houston economy, sometimes to comical extremes.
There are many examples that come to mind, but my favorite is the one where a green helicopter appeared in the skies over the city and its surrounding area. The color of this chopper is significant since it’s the shade used by INS, and as such, a mass panic erupted amongst the Hispanic construction crews all over town. You could almost see their cartoonish cloud-like outlines as they hightailed it off the jobsites, literally leaving behind tools, equipment, and taco (gut) trucks. And the best part? That green helicopter, the ominous signal of a large-scale government sting, turned out to be the newly purchased toy of a local oil corporation whose CEO wanted to take up for a joyride. The end result: the mass exodus shut down housing production for three days.
Inevitably, related experiences trickle down to a personal level as was the case with my stepdaughter Avery, who, along with her older sister, spent much of the summer at the pool. Unlike weekdays, when the girls had their virtual run of things, on weekends the place was packed. To adults, this can be a little uncomfortable when it comes to claiming a spot to sit in, but for the girls, who thrive on social interaction, it’s an opportunity to extend their influence in achieving their goal to become H-town’s most notable socialites.
Both stand a good chance of seeing this dream realized, but of the two, it’s Avery who invariably breaks the ice, which is interesting to say the least. In witnessing Avery’s technique, I half expect her to whip out business cards with her contact information should whoever it is she’s meeting ever find themselves in need of life insurance or a new home. Within seconds, they are fast friends.
At the pool, though, Avery’s ability to ingratiate herself into the company of unknown strangers hit a snag when she locked onto a group of Hispanic children splashing in the shallow end. “Hey, everyone!” she hailed in a voice cuter than any cuddly cartoon character. “I’m Avery.”
Never has a five year-old looked so white (which is ironic since her great uncle—and I’m not joking—is the president of a Central American country). But if Avery’s presence was supposed to mean something to the six or seven boys and girls now looking at her, it didn’t show. They went silent, a hollow confusion on their faces as if Avery had mistaken them for someone else or that perhaps she would start hurling cats at them. Avery, however, interpreted this to mean that they hadn’t heard her over the sounds of the nearby waterfall, and so she adjusted her volume accordingly. “Have any of you ever considered the benefits of owning a timeshare!?”
The mention of a timeshare must have peaked one of the kids’ interest, because he started to speak, followed by the others. No one’s quite sure what was said, but in any case, a dialogue seemed to be underway which normally would lead to another afternoon of pool-side fun, and possibly a few new clients for Avery’s Rolodex. But not this time.
Several minutes into her pitch, Avery's voice drowned out the monotone din of outdoor conversation. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU!” She was leaning slightly forward, bent at the hips, clenched fists fixed at her sides. “SPEAK ENGLISH!”
The other children fell quiet again while exchanging nervous glances in anticipation of the impending barrage of cats about to be unleashed on them. The expectant demeanor melted into relief watching Avery stomp off towards her aunt who was sunning herself a few yards away.
With obvious frustration, Avery explained what had happened, and when she had finished, her aunt suggested Avery try again, but this time, using the Spanish words she knew. Avery is by no means fluent, but she knows enough to unload a ’72 Ford Pinto that’s been sitting on the lot for too long.
Her aunt’s advice provided Avery with a renewed sense of confidence. She strode back to the children, her head high, a wide smile stretched across her face communicating that bygones were bygones and what mattered now was a fresh start. Rejoining the group, Avery took a moment to engage everyone with that smile to ensure she had regained their undivided attention. All eyes were on her as she began to speak.
“Hola, guys! Uno, dos, tres, quatro cinco, seis. Gracias!”
Friday was Meet-the-Teacher day for parents and students, during which, the girls like to say hi to their old teachers. Their unanimous favorite is Ms. B. who had both Allie and Avery in kindergarten. When the girls saw her, there were lots of squealing and hugs before Ms. B went on to inform us that she would be teaching English as a Second Language to an entire class of Hispanic children. “And I’d like you girls to come read to them,” she said referencing an effective peer-teaching technique used with ESL students.
Watching Avery clapping as she jumped up and down at the idea of performing before a live studio audience reminded me of that day at the pool.
Oh, yes, Avery will be great at that. She's already developed a special rapport with the Hispanic community.