Fabiola Santiago

Latinos can never assimilate enough for the Tom Brokaws of America

Author and journalist Tom Brokaw speaks at the Miami Book Fair International about his book “A Lucky Life Interrupted” at Miami Dade College on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015.
Author and journalist Tom Brokaw speaks at the Miami Book Fair International about his book “A Lucky Life Interrupted” at Miami Dade College on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

I don’t think Tom Brokaw is a racist, as some are charging in the wake of his ignorant comments about Hispanics on national television during a segment on President Donald Trump’s border wall. Like many Americans, he simply doesn’t know us, doesn’t see us in full.

Me, I want to thank him for serving on a silver platter the opportunity to address the anti-Hispanic sentiment that has always been there in some form but, under this administration has seeped into the fabric of this country like water on porous rock.

The veteran journalist’s rant was inaccurate, hurtful and out of touch with the segment of the American population he was confidently describing with the broad brush of hasty sound-bites on last Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”

Clueless and patronizing, Brokaw fed his audience the research-debunked stereotype that Hispanics are unwilling to learn English — and taking it to even more egregious heights, he added that we’re keeping our kids from learning it. As if the dream of a good education for our kids didn’t exist for Latino parents.

“Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” Brokaw said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. They ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all of their kids are learning to speak English, and that they feel comfortable in the communities, and that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

If one of America’s most famous journalists picked up this ridiculous claim somewhere along the way as truth it’s because this is the stereotype anti-immigrant groups hammer into the anxiously monolingual American psyche.

His sources must have done a heck of a job convincing Brokaw that we — the largest minority group in the United States — are the problem, because he launched the assimilation tirade with the assertion that all the “intermarriage” going on has the cultures “conflicting with each other.”

Are we reliving the 1940s, 1950s, the 1960s — or what?

Given the context for his words, the border wall, I’m guessing that Brokaw put out there all this painful, surreal and horribly misguided stuff in an effort to get us to understand Trump’s America, where according to people who whisper in Brokaw’s ear, Americans don’t want to end up with “brown grandbabies.”

“A lot of this, we don’t want to talk about,” he said. “But the fact is, on the Republican side, a lot of people see the rise of an extraordinary, important new constituent in American politics, Hispanics, who will come here and all be Democrats. I hear when I push people a little harder, ‘I don’t know whether I want brown grandbabies.’ I mean, that’s also a part of it. It’s the intermarriage that is going on and the cultures that are conflicting with each other.”

What contribution could passing on this blatantly racist, disparaging comment by white supremacists make to the national conversation on border security?

As Texas congressman Joaquin Castro so aptly cast on Twitter: “Unfortunate to see xenophobia pass for elevated political commentary.”

Me, I just want to shout: Want to know what having brown grandbabies is like, America?

Pure joy — with added value, when the love with which they were conceived also broke through hateful barriers and human-made taboos.

As if he hadn’t dug a hole deep enough for himself and NBC, which called his comments “inaccurate and inappropriate,” Brokaw’s subsequent apology, delivered in a series of awkward tweets, also was impaired by his stunning lack of understanding.

“I feel terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture,” he said.

All of his comments offended. This one, too. Our pride as his burden. Our alleged lack of assimilation as America’s burden. Our brown babies as the end of the white race’s comfort.

It’s not enough that, to make it easier for themselves, American society and institutions lump us into one category — Hispanics — discarding the nuances of our nationalities of origin, our history and our richly diverse cultures. Now it’s our job to soothe white America’s fears, too.

We have to shed our souls, hide in shame our mother tongue, and behave in some ideal “Leave it to Beaver” manner that suits Americans angst-ridden by demographics and people they suspect of being potential Democrats.

In my lifetime, I’ve been asked assorted variations of “Why don’t they want to speak English?” more times than I care to remember.

I’m often tempted to come right out and pose these questions back my inquisitor: Why do you spend so much time monitoring/ruminating/fuming what language your fellow Americans speak? Don’t you realize this obsession in a developed country founded on the principle of free speech is abnormal? Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, thou shalt speak only English on this soil.

But I swallow my tongue and defer to my preferred method of dealing with the all-American language torment: I tell our immigrant story.

The only person who didn’t learn English in my family was my father. He has only a sixth-grade education because he left school to help his widowed mother. He had enough smarts and hustle to build a food distribution business in Cuba that put him solidly in the home-owning middle class. Fidel Castro took it all from him. He chose exile, where he declined government assistance to relocate to Oklahoma, and went to work in Miami, often for 12-hour shifts, in a window-painting factory. For extra cash on weekends, he worked as a waiter at quince parties and weddings. In two years, he and my college-educated mother, a former teacher who went to night school to learn English and accounting while also working in a factory, saved the down payment for a $21,000 home.

Although we suspected he could understand more than he let on, the only words my father mastered in English were “brown paint.” I translated for him when his English-only boss went far too long without giving him a raise.

At what time, I want to ask Brokaw and all the other Americans so eager to judge, should he have worked harder at his assimilation? While he slept?

Because the family he raised in this country is the very definition of the American salad bowl —1 and a portrait of the future.

My brother and I both married non-Hispanics of diverse backgrounds my father embraced. We both struggled to raise bilingual children, not because they couldn’t speak English, but because American culture is so overpowering that they couldn’t learn to speak Spanish well enough or without an accent. This, despite spending their early years and their after-school hours with Spanish-only abuelo and abuela and living in Miami-Dade, where almost 70 percent of the population is Hispanic.

Now with internships and jobs under their belt in which speaking even bad Spanish was a tremendous asset, they’re extremely grateful for the extra language skill. My daughters too married non-Hispanics, and theirs and my struggle to teach their kids Spanish is almost a lost cause.

We’re far from unique. In fact, the Pew Research Center will tell you that 99 percent of Latinos who are the grandchildren of immigrants speak English as a first language and less than a quarter know enough Spanish to be considered bilingual.

This demise of language skill — praised as assimilation — is a loss to America, not a plus.

Like many Americans who live secluded in their version of reality and only parachute for a glance at minority communities when news breaks, Tom Brokaw doesn’t know us, doesn’t understand us, doesn’t see us in all of our complexity.

And no, having interviewed Mexican labor leader Cesar Chavez eons ago doesn’t make up for the lack of insight in 2019.

Listening to what we’re saying, to our myriad of voices and stories — and including and accepting us as we are in the mainstream of American life, where we belong — might start to make a dent on the ignorance.

As for assimilation, let’s face it: Our roots in this land date back centuries. Spanish was the first European language spoken on the continent, but for the Tom Brokaws of America, Hispanics can never assimilate enough.

A Jewish Cuban girl who flees Fidel Castro's regime and lands in multicultural New York City is the main character of the first novel by anthropologist Ruth Behar, designed to teach U.S. children about belonging, identity and immigration.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”