Monday, June 25, 2007

Chop chop

There is a free weekly newspaper in Portland called Willamette Week. In their May 2nd issue, the cover story was called Chop Shop, and it was ostensibly about improper working conditions at Del Monte's North Portland plant. Del Monte workers chop up fruits and vegetables, so they can be sold in supermarkets in pre-cut/pre-sliced portions. The author of the story, Beth Slovic, went undercover for three days and worked at the plant in order to see for herself, and expose, the conditions at the plant.

The story, however, ended up exposing more than just working conditions such as near-freezing temperatures, long hours, and long wages. It also exposed a large amount of the workers as being, by their own admittance, in the US illegaly. These workers did not know, and were not informed later, that they were really speaking to a journalist.

On June 12th, federal agents raided the plant and detained 170 employees. An as-of-yet unspecified number of those employees are being deported. As with any local news story, the human-interest angle soon emerged: the fact that many of those arrested are parents of children who were born here, or are here legally, and so families are now being separated.

I would imagine that many people who hear about this situation feel torn. It is indeed awful that families are separated, and that people who were not aware that they were exposing themselves to a reporter are paying such a high price (the federales stated that they had been investigating the staffing company that supplied the plant with employees prior to the release of the article, for the record). On the other hand, they were here illegally, and discovery and deportation is the price an illegal immigrant must be prepared to pay. In addition, being in the US and working sin papeles is in and of itself a crime, but the way that many get around the lack of a work visa, green card, or Social Security number is by purchasing fake documentation. These Social Security numbers belong to other people, and constitutes identity theft. Laws are indeed being broken, and it would be nonsensical for those who get caught to not be punished.

However, I think that in this story there are larger issues looming. I don't dispute that those workers were breaking the law. My concern is over two separate issues: a journalist's responsibilities, and the corporation's liability.

The journalist encountered a situation in that plant which she may not have expected. She went in looking at working conditions, and came out knowing that many of the employees are illegal immigrants. This particular demographic is easily exploited, and the story illustrated that. But in order to expose the company, it's name and location had to be revealed. Now it is beyond suspicion that employees at that location are here illegaly - a fact they certainly would not have confessed to if they had known they would be exposed. Hiding their names is not enough, when the name of their employer is blared on the front cover of the paper. Any US citizen may choose to speak to a reporter udner the condition of anonymity, and to a certain degree journalists can fight to protect the anonymity of their sources - but like true exploited workers, who are given no recourse by their employers to fight unfairness, they were not given this option either when they spoke candidly to Slovic. Even though the staffing company that sent them to Del Monte was being investigated prior to this article, the reality is that Slovic did not know this, and released enough identifying information that should have made these workers very nervous.

Del Monte is not facing further investigation in this matter. They used a staffing company, American Staffing Resources, and by searching its offices, federal agents were able to obtain specifc information on the Del Monte employees. ASR is under investigation, however, Del Monte can claim that they rely on ASR to send them legal workers. This is, on the surface, correct, but it is unlikely that Del Monte is unaware that many of their lowest-paid employees are illegal immigrants. They seem to not have asked ASR to be more forthcoming in their screening process. The rat has to have been smelled, but no one bothered to clean it up.

In the end, the most vulnerable get caught, and the most powerful wriggle out out of yet another pickle. And we remain without a plan to effectively reform this behemoth of an issue, so that we can stop the vicious cycle. People will continute to try to sneak in the US, continue to try to work and survive, and continue to break the law doing so. We can sit proudly, arms crossed, and refuse to budge even an inch, letting this saga play itself out in an endless loop, or we can admit that compromises need to be made on both sides. Not only is the currect situation not helping, it is creating an environment of distrust and hostility towards people whose names and accents are a little too funny for our tastes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Notes from gringolandia

When I was growing up, the word gringo was not used in an antagonistic way, but also not in a friendly one. In PR we use the word to denote someone from the United States, and many times it was to say something like, "That tourist can't dance - must be a gringo", or "Of course he doesn't like morcillas, he's a gringo". While I never detected outright hostility in the way the word was used, the subtext was one of condescension, of "look how different that outsider is from us". And it's not just any outsider - it's a word that in PR separates us and our idiosyncracies from those of neighbors to the north.

I've noticed that some Americans do not have a problem referring to themselves as gringos - mostly because they may not fully understand the usage of the word. Usually this happens when in the company of Hispanics, and they'll jokingly call themselves that name in order to show that they understand that they are different, and to subtly explain why they can't dance, or why they just don't like to eat blood sausage. They're just gringos, and therefore cannot help such shortcomings.

Puerto Ricans have started, throughout the years, to use the term more loosely. They may call someone from the States a gringo with no other context within the conversation that would indicate anything other than, simply, identifying him or her as an American. Another word, gringolandia, meaning gringoland, has popped up, and it refers to the US itself. Again, most of the time its usage denotes an "us and them" mentality; it points to things you never in your life saw or knew about until you moved to or visited gringolandia.

You will meet some Spanish-speakers who see nothing approximating an insult in the word gringo. It's just another word for an American, they say. The word in Spanish for someone from the US, estadounidense, is long and cumbersome - which is why I more often use americano, another word that is frought with its own cultural perils - so we just call them gringos. You'll meet others who believe that it's meant to be insulting. And most of us Spanish-speakers cannot even agree on the etymology of the word. The old story that it comes from a song sung by soldiers in the Mexican-American War, "Green Grow The Lilacs", has widely been debunked. Some say that it comes from the same time period, but refers to the phrase "green go", in reference to Mexicans urging Americans, in their green uniforms, to leave. Again, given that the word was in use before the war (it was noted in a Spanish dictionary from 1750), and the Americans wore blue, we can assume that theory is implausible as well. A third theory states that it comes from the Spanish for "speaking Greek", which means much the same as the phrase "sounds Greek to me" in English. In any case, just one look at the discussion section of the Wikipedia article for the word gringo shows just how much debate surrounds this word. The article itself is flagged as possibly being biased and not factually correct. One commenter's argument that using it alone is neutral, but using it with pinche (a Mexican-slang expletive) makes it an insult, somehow rings hollow.

I find myself in the middle of the debate regarding its meaning. I can only speak to its usage in PR and not to how it may be used in other Latin American countries, but while I don't find it to be a particularly virulent word, I don't find it to be harmless, either. I see this word as an attempt to draw a line that separates "us" from "them", and not just in the obvious way that any name based on nationality would define people. If you see an American doing something you wouldn't do, he becomes a gringo. If you see an American not quite "get" your culture, he becomes a gringo.

Little by little, I see this word take on a life of its own. It highlights cultural differences that we may not understand, but it doesn't urge us to try and understand them, rather, it leads us to dismiss those differences and assume that, when it comes to us and them, ne'er the twain shall meet. Unfamiliar situations can become distasteful and something to avoid if we simply categorize them as "things those gringos do".

As to how the word originated, while it may have been in use as early as the 18th century, it's hard to say what the hidden meanings of the word were, if any. It may well have started out being a neutral word, but at some point in its history it took another turn. If some today do use the word in a completely neutral way, with no connotations whatsoever, I believe it's the result of a charged word becoming more and more commonplace. Is this a good thing? Is power being stripped from a word, or are we falling into using once-unfriendly words so often that we no longer think about it? How would we feel if Americans started to use such names about Hispanics so often that they became commonplace?

If these questions have definite answers, they'll be coming from minds greater than mine. There are likely many Spanish-speakers who disagree with my view on the g-word.But for myself, the word gringo is one I choose to avoid. Were I on a Randal Graves-like crusade to take back the word, I would venture to use it more often. But, alas, I cannot dream of being as brave as he.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Se habla español

Sometimes people feel uncomfortable when someone near them is speaking in another language. "What if they're talking about me?", they wonder.

There are two ways of knowing whether you are a subconsciously self-centered individual - if you meet a gay person and immediately become uncomfortable because you are operating under the assumption that they've automatically got the hots for you, and if you hear a foreign language being spoken in your general vicinity and you think that they're trash-talking you behind your back (or, if you're that kind of woman, that they're complimenting you in a lascivious manner).

It's not all about you. But, as proof, I'll recount some conversations I've overheard in Spanish.

Conversation #1: two guys, overheard while standing in line at Ross Dress for Less:

Fulano: Hey, those are nice pants you got there.
Mengano: Thanks, they're linen.
Fulano: Okay.
Mengano: Usually I don't like linen because it wrinkles easily, but the cut of these pants is really nice, like they were Italian or something.
Fulano: I see.
Mengano: Plus they'll look really nice with that black shirt I have.
Fulano: Would you like a sewing machine for your birthday, corazón?
Mengano: Shut up, pendejo. I have class.

Conversation #2: four guys sitting behind me on the bus, apparently just off of work:

Guy #1: The job's okay, but it gets boring after a while. I need to bring in a radio or something.
Guy #2: Yeah, listening to music helps.
Guy #1: They have one at work but it doesn't get good reception and it only takes cassettes. I don't have cassettes.
Guy #3: I have one on me, do you want to borrow it?
Guy #1: Sure, what's on it?
Guy #3: It's all Tigres del Norte.
They all laugh hard.
Guy #1: No, pendejo, seriously, what's on it?

Conversation #3: two guys, one a teenager, one in his thirties, on the bus:

Teenager: I want to ask Maribel out.
Older guy: She's going to slap you if you do.
Teenager: That's okay, I'll probably like it.
Older guy: Yeah, but that means she doesn't like you.
Teenager shrugs
Older guy, shaking his head: Idiot.

So, you see, not only were these conversations not about you, all trash-talking was directed at a participant in the conversation. No one was calling you a pendejo or an idiot, they weren't laughing at you, and ladies, they weren't checking you out and saying slimy things in Spanish.

Not to say I haven't overheard conversations about someone nearby. On the rare occasion that it happens, it's pretty harmless. I heard this one while walking down the street.

Guy #1: That girl is beautiful. If only she were ten years older...
Guy #2: Don't you mean, what if you were ten years younger?
Guy #1: No, the older you get, the more interesting you get. I like women who are interesting.

See? They were talking about you, but nice things were said. Don't you wish you could have understood that conversation? Of course you do. Now go learn Spanish, because if nothing else, maybe that will make you less paranoid.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Cultural Exchange Proposal: Galesburg, IL and San Juan, PR

I read a story about a high school graduation in Galesburg, Illinois, where four students were denied their diplomas because there were cheers in the crowd.

That sounds really stupid, I know. When I saw the headline, I thought I'd better go read the story because there had to be more to it than that.

Indeed, as these students came up to the podium, their families cheered for them. Diplomas almost in hand, they were retracted, and the students will in fact not be getting them at all unless the school system can find a way for them to "earn them back".

This is all a result of a graduation ceremony two years ago, where the cheering got so rowdy that some students were unable to hear their names being called, robbing them of their special moment. So the school now makes graduates and their parents sign a behavior agreement to ensure that the ceremony is kept "honorable and dignified".

Aside from how stupefyingly inane it is to punish the students because their families expressed joy at their rite of passage, I couldn't help but think how such a rule would go over in Puerto Rico. An island where the slightest reason for celebration is accompanied by loud music, loud laughter, and a fair amount of cerveza.

When I was making plans to make my first trip back home after leaving to go to college in New York, my mom joked that they'd meet me at the airport with banners and music. At one hint of my agreeing to such a spectacle, I have no doubt they would have done it - not just because they have no shame, but because it's a scene I've seen myself at the always-lovely Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.

How do Puerto Ricans celebrate honorable and dignified events, such as, say, Christmas? Do we sing dainty carols? No, we swarm en masse on some poor friend's home around, oh, midnight, and sing songs with lyrics like "If you didn't think I'd be showing up, you're really screwed". We also force them to feed us, and keep them awake with loud music for a couple of hours. Do we make mugs of hot cocoa and marshmallows? No, we make a coconut drink and spike it to within an inch of its life with enough rum to stun a horse. A couple of Christmases ago, at my grandparents' house, a karaoke machine made an appearance. The mic was cranked up to 11 - residents up and down the street got to hear us sing every Christmas song we knew, and that we could make up.

During election season, do politicians wear sharp suits and regale us with inspired rhetoric? No, they come out in their rolled-up shirtsleeves and develop armpit stains faster than you can say Mennen, rent a sound system the size of a one-bedroom bungalow, cue up the most danceable jingle they could pay for, and park it in a quiet neighborhood for an hour or so. In fact, you haven't lived until such a monster soundsystem blares David Bisbal bleating Bulería right next to your house.

I think Galesburg and Puerto Rico could learn from each other. Sometimes, yes, dignity and decorum need to be observed so that people can learn to be polite and considerate towards each other. It certainly is not right to shout so loud at a graduation ceremony so that no one else can enjoy it. But being polite and respectful of others doesn't mean that you can't show happiness, that you can't celebrate an important milestone in someone's life. Puritans may have rapped you on the head if you smiled in church, but I think we've all come a long way since then. So Galesburg could teach us to settle down a little bit and remember that other people don't always want to hear you hooting and hollering, and we could teach them that exhuberantly expressing happiness is natural - and makes life a lot more fun.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Go back to (insert country of origin here)!

What I think is getting scary about how immigration discourse is America is that, even when people have a disagreement that has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, it is brought into the mix anyway.

I read an article that presents an example: Immigration Debate Stirs Animosity

The causes of the incident are not clear, but two teenagers threw rocks at the vehicle of 2 Mexican men. They men had been in the park, and according to the teens, they had said something offensive to a teenaged girl (which, if it's true - thanks, guys). As they drove away, the teens threw rocks and taunted them by saying "Go back to Mexico".

A friendly neighborhood resident commented, "The whole country is getting tired of these Mexicans".

It is true that the confrontation has nothing to do with race - but it devolved into ugly chants based on the victims' nationalities anyway. And that's what I find unsettling, that it seems like more and more people are totally okay with hurling ethnic insults at people whenever a touchy situation arises, even if the initial confrontation is not racially-motivated.


The other day I was reading a blog by a food writer I enjoy, Michael Ruhlman. He posted an entry about tarragon being his favorite herb. In the comments section, cilantro entered the discussion.

I love cilantro. It's well-known for being widely used in Mexican cooking, but Puerto Rican cuisine uses it as well. (I almost feel weird calling it "cuisine" - it's so down-home that calling it cuisine sounds very fancypants.) My main application for cilantro is for making sofrito, which is a fragrant blend of various aromatic ingredients used as a seasoning during cooking. Traditionally, it's made with culantro instead of cilantro, but since that's hard to find over in these parts, cilantro works as well. It's a pretty malleable concoction, but mandatory ingredients are onion and garlic. Some add tomatoes, some add sweet chilies or, if those cannot be found, bell peppers.

Sofrito smells great as is, as soon as you're done blending it in the food processor. But its real magic explodes as soon as it hits a hot pan. All those aromatics immediately permeate the kitchen, then the entire house, and eventually even wafts out through the windows to make passers-by stop and wonder what the hell smells so good. I add it to soups, to yellow rice, to ground beef, to beans. Although if you make it with mostly green ingredients, you need to be mindful that it will affect the color of some foods.

You don't need to use a lot. A little bit goes a long way.

My grandmother used to make sofrito often, and she had culantro and cilantro growing in a little patch just outside the house. Her hands usually smelled of it, and, as dinnertime grew closer, so did the whole house. That smell elicited a Pavlovian reaction of wondering where my grandmother was, and what time dinner would be. As an adult, it's become a sensory trigger which, upon impact, shoots me back to that little house where Abuela would be running around, always juggling three things at the same time. One would be food related, one would be housework related, and one would involve running after some grandchild or another. Sometimes she'd complain, sometimes she'd scold us, but way more often she'd be laughing, smiling, and looking for ways to spoil us.

During this blog discussion, a surprisingly large number of people expressed very ardent anti-cilantro feelings. It tastes like soap! It tastes like crap! It ruins food! I had heard before that some people just cannot abide the taste - indeed, likening it to soap - but the harshness of the opinions expressed took me aback somewhat. First, I really dislike any food being catalogued as yucky, icky, or ew. Unless you're talking about warthog rectum, really, show a little bit more respect to those things that many people ingest and enjoy. (And even with warthog rectum, save your icks and ews for when you're out of earshot of people who actually eat it.)

What took me aback even more was how those comments got my back up. I wanted to defend cilantro's honor. Sure, she may not be for everyone. But damnit, she's green, lovely, and fragrant. She works well with others, but stands up to other ingredients who have strong tastes of their own. However, I think the reason this all left a bad taste in my mouth, more than it would have had it just been a food issue, was simply because I equate cilantro with love - good food lovingly prepared by someone who loves me, and whom I love very much.

I know that cilantro-haters have no way of knowing why I'm so attached that little herb, and that my attachment is not exactly rational. But I don't care - I'll continue to defend cilantro to all the haters out there. And if we need to take this outside, well, then, by all means - I'll meet you by the bike racks after school.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The French-Puerto Rican Connection

I was telling someone the other day about a book that I read a few months ago and loved - Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.

Pepin is a French chef who in 1959 emigrated to the US. He was raised by a mother who owned a series of cafés, and he was expected to help in the kitchen. He talks extensively about all the fresh ingredients they were able to easily find, either in markets, or picked straight from the ground in the countryside. During World War II, foods were strictly rationed, down to the most essential things, like butter; as we say in PR, "hicieron de tripas, corazones" (from guts, they made hearts). Okay, I know the literal translation is still a head-scratcher - the closest saying in English is that when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. So, in conclusion, they made the best of things. End of Cliches Explained, International Edition.

He became an apprentice in several French restaurants, and by all appearances rose in the kitchen ranks fairly quickly. He learned the old-fashioned way to make dishes that are incredibly demanding, and require nothing but complete attention in order to come out correctly and please demanding palates. In the late 50's he served as Charles de Gaulle's personal chef. When de Gaulle's tenure was over, Pepin decided to move to the States, where he was offered a position in the White House kitchen. He turned it down, deciding to work for Howard Johnson - his role was to help upgrade the quality of food served in his restaurants, while at the same time understanding the constraints of having to prepare recipes that would be consistent and feasible at every single Howard Johnson's kitchen. One would imagine that quite a few eyebrows were raised - rejecting the fine cuisine and prestige of the White House in favor of working for a chain? Whatever. Pepin had his reasons - he stuck to them, and for 10 years turned out to be an invaluable asset to the Howard Johnson's chain.

Later, he opened his own lunch spot in New York City called Soup's On. It served, yes, soups, and became wildly successful. This helped gain him recognition from different high-falutin' people on the food world, such as James Beard and Julia Child, and he's ended up writing dozens of cookbooks and starring in several PBS cooking shows. With all this going on, the man found time to go to school to learn English, and earn a BA and a Master's from Columbia University.

So why am I recounting his life story? It's a framework that props up my reasons for loving his autobiography - the man has a fascinating personal story, an enviable relationship to food, and an unfailingly positive outlook on life. All this, and he remains self-reflexive and capable of admitting when he's made mistakes. This is why I thought I loved The Apprentice.

As I heartily recommended this book the other day, I heard myself say the following: "He moved from France to the US, and instead of complaining that he no longer had access to his usual French ingredients, or lamenting that French culture was so much better, he kept the best of France and adopted the best of the US into his cooking." (Well, I was not quite as eloquent, but that was the message). The man did not assimilate into his new home's culture, losing what he had learned in his home country - he adapted, to include what the US had to offer. He understood when French cuisine had an advantage. He also understood that ingredients to be found here had their own value, and that there were customs here that might suit him better. He doesn't seem to believe that he has to cling to his home country's every custom and long-held beliefs simply because they are from his country. He weighs what comes to him, and then decides.

It was one of those moments where as the words come out of your mouth, your brain is going "Hey. Genius. This is just occuring to you?"

Sometimes, when I feel like in some ways I have become Americanized, I wonder if I am assimilating rather than adapting. It seems like it's hard to draw that line at times. Thinking back on Pepin's story, I realized that by practicing some mindfulness, it's not necessarily complicated: it's a combination of following your logic, and following your heart. You adopt customs that are not your own when logic tells you they will work well for you, but also when your heart tells you that you have not forgotten where you come from. You can, indeed, straddle two cultures without putting your origins in jeopardy. When it's not just your brain that retains memories of your home, but also your heart, the act of balancing two cultures becomes as natural as a veteran tightrope walker getting on his rope and relying on his senses to guide him.

A great example of how Pepin has done this is in his cookbook, Fast Food My Way. He understands the value of having simple, easy to prepare meals at home. The French also have simple, hearty foods, but the concept of "fast food" is quite American. He brings his cooking experiences from his French life - simple recipes, fresh ingredients - and adapts them in such a way that Americans can relate to on a more culturally-personal level.

And if this man has not already proven to be awesome enough, he married a woman who is half Cuban, half Puerto Rican. The man, he has taste.