I really can’t blame Tom Brokaw for what he said. Maybe it has more to do with how he said it. But let’s face it, he is an old white dude, and well, he did not know any better.
The thing is, that I can relate to those speaking out to the concept of brown babies not being accepted into American society because I was one of those brown babies.
So the following article says a lot about me and my own experience growing up in a somewhat Latino bicultural world.
The real question at the center of the Brokaw backlash: What does it take to be seen as American enough?
Tom Brokaw angered many Sunday when he said “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation.” (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
By Theresa Vargas
January 30 at 3:30 PM
I was standing in line at a CVS pharmacy on a recent afternoon, waiting to pick up antibiotics for my youngest son, when a man grabbed my arm and looked at me with pleading eyes.
I knew before he even opened his mouth what he wanted. He wanted me to translate for him.
This happens to me often, and each time it does, I have the same nagging thought: I wish I spoke Spanish more fluently.
I speak Spanish, but not that type that slips easily through my ears and off my tongue because I’ve heard it my whole life.
I speak the type of Spanish that took years of studying and traveling through South America to learn, the type that even during a casual conversation in which I’m laughing with someone, I’m also forcing my brain to double-check verb conjugations.
I have long been frustrated by this. I have also long understood the reason for it: assimilation.
‘Show me your passports’: Racist rants against Spanish speakers caught on camera
A woman was shown on video Oct. 17 yelling obscenities at a family speaking Spanish at a Virginia restaurant. It isn’t the first racist rant caught on camera. (Melissa Macaya /The Washington Post)
My parents suffered because they spoke Spanish as children growing up in San Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s. My father told me recently about a day he was in middle school. He spoke English in all his classes. But outside of class, he accidentally slipped into Spanish for a moment with two other boys. “Que paso,” he had said. “What’s up?” Just two words, but a teacher heard him and my father knew what was coming next: swats with a wooden paddle.
I don’t fault my parents for later choosing to speak mostly English, with a sprinkling of Spanglish, in our home when my siblings and I were growing up. Spanish had literally brought them pain.
Other Latinos and members of other ethnic groups did the same thing. They consciously allowed parts of their heritage, whether it be traditions, language or the pronunciations of their names, to fall away in the hopes that it would help their children be considered more American than they were. It didn’t matter whether, like my parents, they had also been born in this country, worked hard every day and paid their taxes on time. Americanism, society had let them know, was about more than citizenship and contribution.
To many people, the outrage that journalist Tom Brokaw ignited when he said, “Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” may seem overblown. Those same people would probably point out that he apologized.
[Tom Brokaw apologizes after saying ‘Hispanics should work harder at assimilation’]
For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is much more to gain from further attacking him. But I also don’t think we should wave his remarks away, as some of his supporters have tried to do, and ignore why they were hurtful to so many people — and not just to Latinos.
His comments came during a discussion on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the border wall and the recent government shutdown. He spoke about assimilation after remarking on how he had heard from people who don’t know whether they want “brown grandbabies.”
“I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been saying for a long time. You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all 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.”
Days after his remarks, followed by his apology, people were still sharing their anger and hurt on social media, many defending their place in this country. That’s not because there are a lot of overly sensitive individuals. That’s because his words struck at a concern many people of color share: What does it take to be seen as American enough?
People touted their degrees and their accomplishments online, asking if that made them assimilated enough. They also spoke of what their families had given up to be seen as American. Was that sacrifice enough? Would anything be enough?
[Hispanic immigrants are assimilating just as quickly as earlier groups]
“This son of Mexican parents and five siblings speak both English and Spanish, all graduated from top universities, own their own homes and businesses, have college educated grandchildren, two of which earned doctorate degrees,” one person tweeted. “Is that assimilated enough Mr. Brokaw?”
“My late great uncle changed his Italian surname to an English version to find work in Chicago,” wrote another person. “I’d wish that on no family in America.”
“I’m a non-Spanish speaking Hispanic,” wrote a woman whose profile says she served in the military. “I grew up with 4 grandparents who spoke Spanish around us. Later on I was sad to learn they thought they were ‘protecting’ or ‘helping’ us by not teaching us Spanish. Yet growing up in So. CA, I was called ‘beaner’ & ‘wetback.’ Go figure.”
Some people have argued that Brokaw’s comment uttered any other time would have been ignored. Maybe that’s true. But we’re not in another time. We’re at a point in this country in which our president described an Indiana-born federal judge as incapable of being fair to him because he was “a Mexican.” He might as well have called him “not American.
We’re at a point in this country in which individuals and groups who have spouted hate against people of color were quick to latch onto Brokaw’s words and defend them as the truth, ignoring data that showed otherwise.
Hispanics have been found to assimilate and learn English just as quickly as other groups. The Pew Research Center released a report in 2017 that showed a growing share of Hispanics had gone to college and that “a record 35 million Hispanics ages 5 and older say they are English-proficient.”
No one is saying Latinos shouldn’t assimilate and learn English. They are saying that they have long been working hard to do so in ways they chose and in ways that were chosen for them. If you don’t see that, then you need to expand your circles.
I have no doubt that the man I helped at that CVS counter that day wished he knew English. No one moves to this country — or any country — and doesn’t want the easier life that comes with being able to better communicate. No one wants to have to rely on strangers to help them with the simplest of tasks.
That afternoon, he just wanted me to let the pharmacist know that he really needed that medicine that day.
Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism. Follow