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Guest Opinion: English only

by Emilio Gonzalez

Emilio Gonzalez. Photo: Ray Dyer
Emilio Gonzalez. Photo: Ray Dyer  

When I told my mother what the principal had done to me she took off her white cotton apron, put on her walking shoes, and in her everyday housedress took me by the hand, dabbed my tears, and said, "Let's go, Emilio. I have a few things to say to that Nazi bitch."

"Why did you spank my son, Madam Principal?" my mother asked.

"Emilio was overheard speaking Spanish in the playground by one of the teachers, and we have strict rules, English only on school property."

The principal, Miss Werner, was of German stock, full bodied, big breasted, and wide beamed. The kids called her "Miss Weenie."

"I don't give a damn about your rules," mother shouted. "I see no reason for inflicting pain on helpless young children to force them to speak your cold, stiff language." I held on to my mother's skirt and stared at the floor.

"May I remind you, Mrs. Gonzalez, that you are in America now and in America we speak English," she adjusted her rimless glasses.

"I'll have you know that I was born here, in Tampa, educated in your schools, and learned perfect English without submitting to punishment," my mother said. She slapped her hand on the desk.

"If these Cuban children are to be successful in getting a good job, they must speak English, preferably with no accent," the principal said.

"My husband cannot speak one word of English, yet he always has a job and makes enough money to feed our family," my mother replied.

"Times change. The cigar industry is in decline and there won't be many jobs available in the future. We must prepare these children for higher education and positions in a modern economy," the principal said, standing as if to dismiss us.

"So, forcing them to speak English with brutal spankings will make them into true Americans?" my mother asked.

"I don't make the rules, I just enforce them," the principal said.

"And this is how you enforce English?" my mother asked.

She took me by the hand, turned me around, and lowered my short pants to show my blood red buttocks and tracks of the paddle used on me.

The principal's paddle, made of dark wood with a turned handle, the better to hold it with, had a circle of half-inch holes drilled near the end (the holes make it hurt more.) It hung by a leather cord on a hook just behind her office door and clearly visible to the students walking down the hall to remind them to obey the rules, English only, or else.

"Take a good look, Fraulein. If you ever touch my boy again, I'll come down here and spank your fat butt until it's just as red as his," my mother said.

The principal started for the office door. "Thank you for coming, Mrs. Gonzalez, but I have a meeting."

"Just so you know, Emilio promised that from now on he would speak only English in school," my mother said as she slammed the office door. It echoed down the hallway.

Orange Grove Elementary, an English only public school located in the heart of the Spanish speaking community of Ybor City (a neighborhood in Tampa, Florida) served the children of Italian, Spanish, and Cuban immigrant cigar makers. The school building of Spanish architecture sat in the middle of a former orange grove and was landscaped by hibiscus hedges, palm trees, and bougainvillea vines. On Seventh Avenue, Ybor City's main commercial district, you could smell Cuban coffee roasting, Cuban bread baking, spicy deviled-crab croquettes sold by street vendors, and Spanish bean soup cooking in award-winning restaurants.

By the end of the first grade, I had learned simple sentences and limited conversation in English, thanks to my sister, who was one year ahead of me in school and taught me the new words she had learned. My mother and aunt both spoke perfect English with no accent and they tutored us with correct pronunciation. And, in the classroom, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance (no "under God" back then). We sang "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," and the national anthem, all in English. That year our class planted a Victory Garden behind the school to help with the war effort against the Japanese.

Maybe the spanking motivated me, but I persevered at learning this new language and, before long, I was introduced to a whole new world of words, beliefs, and values. My Cuban-ness began to fade, as did my self-esteem. I became ashamed of my heritage, my parents, and my home. If it wasn't American, it was no good. In our textbooks, the parents were always white, Anglo, and wore modern clothes. In one assignment I had to bring a picture of my parents to class, but I did not show it to anyone for fear that they would laugh at these funny looking immigrants on their wedding day.

Florida rednecks (Crackers) weren't sure what to call these new immigrants. "They're not black, but they sure as hell ain't white," they would say, so they called us Cuban niggers.

By the time I was in junior high, I spoke both Spanish and English fluently with no trace of an accent. But, I did not like going to school. I preferred fishing or bike riding and rarely took my textbooks home, doing my homework in the library or on the bus. My grades hung around low average, and I was bored by the lessons and felt disconnected from the other students. However, when we were given a battery of aptitude tests, I scored higher that anyone in both math and English.

The next semester I was assigned to an advanced English class, where I was the only student who was not a member of the honor society. I learned English composition, wrote stories and poems, and recited aloud in class. Our teacher, Mrs. Strickland, insisted that we stand up to recite, open our mouths to speak out, cast our voice to the last row, and stress consonants.

"Did you write this story by yourself, or did someone help you?" Mrs. Strickland asked. She held my poem, "Marilyn," in her hand.

"No one helped me, teacher. It all came out of my head." I had written a poem to Marilyn Monroe, where I promised to love her forever and described her sexy smile and long legs.

"Fine," she said. "I'll keep it for now and give it back to you at the end of the semester."

In high school I concentrated on English, math, and business courses. I also took speech and drama classes. I entered a contest sponsored by the Rotary Club and won first prize, speaking about "Why I like being an American." I edited and published the school's first wall calendar and wrote a four-line poem for each month. By graduation time, I had a job at the local newspaper and became president of our class. Good English opened many doors for me.

Military life
My mother did not want me to join the military.

"The Boy Scouts are just a way to prepare you for the Army. No son of mine will wear a uniform for this country," she told me when I was 7. I did not take part in ROTC or band, or anything military in high school. But, when I turned 18, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy for four years. It broke my mother's heart. She was against war, against killing, and against becoming Americanized, but I was bored with Tampa and joined the Navy to see the world.

"Emily? Amalio?" said the Navy recruiter. "What kind of pussy name is that?"

"I'm sorry but my family is from Cuba," I said. "Emilio means 'rival' in Latin."

"Well, son, it just won't do for the U. S. Navy," said the overweight chief petty officer, with a red swollen face, two fingers missing from his right hand, bad breath, and cigarette butts overflowing in his ashtray.

"In the Navy the official language is English. From now on your first name will be shortened to 'Ed,'" he said. "However, your birth name will be reflected in all official documents."

The Navy systematically erased the person I had been and made me into a silent, obedient, God-bless-America-and-the-flag sailor. I learned the rules for making money, being promoted, oppressing the lower ranks, gambling, cheating, smoking cigarettes, and avoiding work. They told me that America is the most powerful country in the world, better educated, wealthier, and has the biggest store of deadly weapons. My hair was sheared at the roots; I was immunized against all viruses; all my civilian clothes and anything that remained of life on the outside were taken away. By the end of nine weeks of boot camp, I was transformed into a patriotic robot, convinced that killing others to keep America free was OK.

After boot training I was stationed overseas on the island of Malta, a speck in the middle of the Mediterranean, a colony of the UK for over 200 years. In Malta everyone spoke English, including the native Maltese, who also spoke an Arab-like written language. I memorized some practical Maltese phrases to speak to street vendors and taxi drivers.

One year later, I was transferred to Sigonella, Sicily to build what would become the most strategic NATO base in the world. Italian was the official language, but Sicilian was spoken by most locals. I took classes and had a tutor in Italian and it did not take me long to conduct conversations with strangers on the street. When I went home to Tampa on leave, my father commented, "Mira, Emilio no me hable con esse acsento Italiano." (Don't speak to me with that Italian accent.)

After serving four honorable years in the Navy, I had several civil service jobs with the federal government in Washington, D.C. I excelled at taking exams that led to promotions in administrative positions overseas in Costa Rica and Geneva, Switzerland. My bilingual ability helped me get good jobs. But, my work experience in the Navy and the federal government convinced me that to get a good-paying civilian job, I needed to finish my college education, and I used the GI Bill to finish my degree work at UCLA. I took a full load of evening classes and worked full-time days as an accounting clerk at a big corporation in Beverly Hills.

I earned a bachelor's degree in science and business administration; I was hired to conduct a study of health care costs in East Los Angeles, a community of Spanish-speaking immigrant families from Mexico and Central America that was 96.7 percent Latino. Finally, for the first time since leaving Ybor City in 1957, I was able to engage in Spanish conversation at work, at school, with local business folks, and on the street.

A walk down Whittier Boulevard on my lunch hour exposed me to the colorful, local culture; the scent of spicy foods, tacos, pupusas, rice and beans, enchiladas, and roasted goat, chicken and pork tastier than in Mexico City. Colorful murals with scenes of Mexican independence, women's struggle, and pyramids in dreamy landscapes adorned the neighborhood walls. I saw several 1957 Chevys like the one I owned in Ybor City, restored to showroom quality; low-riders bouncing their classic cars down Monterey Boulevard; young girls going to church in Quinceanera gowns and their first pair of high heels; and I heard mariachis singing nortenas, rancheras, and boleros.

I felt like a potato in potato soup. No one asked me, "Where are you from?" as gringos often do. What they really mean is, "What race are you, obviously, you are not an American." Conversely, because of my non-accented English, my clothes, and my educated manner, some locals considered me a "tio taco" - too assimilated to be called a Chicano.

But, when I began to speak Spanish at work, something unexpected happened; I lost my desire to become Americanized and accepted the idea of Latinos as a people - Hispanic people. I read Spanish novels, newspapers, stories, poems, and songs. I returned to regular Latin dances, and slowly resurrected my pride in being a Latino. I went back to using my given name, Emilio, and never used "Ed" again.

Along the way I've learned that language is much more than just a way of speaking. Language is a gateway to customs, beliefs, prejudices, as well as a path to citizenship, functioning in the marketplace, and clearly a vehicle for control of mind and thoughts. When I speak English today I see myself as an Americanized phony, but when I speak Spanish I talk freely with honesty and conviction, from my heart.

Emilio Gonzalez, 80, is a gay Cuban-American poet, writer, veteran, and tai chi teacher. His work has appeared in numerous print publications and literary journals. In 2015 he published a popular book, "Cigar City Stories." Born in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, Gonzalez lived in San Francisco for 35 years. Today, he lives in Santa Rosa, where he writes every day, paints watercolors, and teaches qigong classes.

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