The family went to a state park lake beach yesterday with Bowyer and his brood. We arrived fairly soon after the place opened, found ourselves a couple of picnic tables in the shade of the trees and staked out a claim on the rough, pebbly lake beach. The water was warm, the sun was shining and we had an all-around wonderful time.
The point of my writing this, though – and the reason for the title and opening statement of this post – is that, by a WIDE margin, the beach area was populated by non-English speaking Hispanics and, for the first time in the 20 or so years I’ve been going to this particular state park, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
You need to understand that we live in New England. You know, that chunk of the U.S. where a tiny boat filled entirely with white people ran aground in 1620 and, after extracting whatever usefulness they could from the current darker-skinned residents, began a long and some may say gleefully enthusiastic effort, picked up by generations after them, of running their neighbors out of town? Yeah, well, for pretty much my whole life – which has been lived entirely in New England, I should add – I’ve been surrounded with people who look and speak just like me. I mean, sure; I had classmates of Italian or Russian descent, and I remember, growing up, that my father’s auto repair shop was visited by vendors who spoke with thick German or Italian accents, but by and large there just hasn’t been a whole lot of ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversity in this part of the country. Until now.
Yesterday, we heard the usual sounds of families at the beach: coolers were rolled down the sidewalks to the picnic tables, food sizzled on charcoal fires, children made a racket laughing and splashing while parents called at them to be mindful of their younger siblings or hollered at them to come to eat. There were a lot of not-so-subtle differences in this atmosphere, though: the scents coming from the grills told us that the food cooking on them wasn’t hamburgers or hotdogs, the parents called to children named Maria and Ernesto in a language I had to call back to high school Spanish classes to try to comprehend, the music coming from the portable stereos had a decidedly Latin flavor. As we were leaving, we were approached by a man who wanted our spot, but he could barely make himself understood and I got most of his meaning through his gestures and the longing look he shot in the direction of the table we were clearing.
Now, I should say that I wasn’t particularly bothered by this shift in demographics at the lake; I wasn’t feeling invaded or offended, though I could begin to understand how some people may experience those unpleasant emotions. I have often been bothered by the LACK of diversity in my home state and am pleased that my children are growing up alongside children whose lives and backgrounds are differed from their own. I did start thinking, though, about the current uproar about immigration (legal and otherwise). I also started thinking about how unwilling some of these new arrivals seem to be to learn English and participate in their local New England culture. I wonder, as an educator, how the children fare in their classes – particularly their English classes – when their home life is conducted in another language. And I worry about the prejudice and lack of acceptance these people face in this area which has been so predominantly white, Anglo Christian for going on 386 years.