Immigrant’s Song

“I have been a stranger in a strange land.”
Moshe ben ‘Amram, c. 1440 BC

I was born in America. Well, California to be precise; which is close enough. Strange land indeed. My parents began dreaming of their exodus not long after my birth, if not before. My dad was an immigrant’s son. My mother was tied to the land through a centuries-long, generational thread. But that thread wound its way to other origins that she was anxious to explore. And the traveling man she married was more than happy to oblige. The four minor children still in the home didn’t have a vote.

It was 1970. What belongings weren’t sold we packed and we made our way to the Arkansan Ozarks. Arkansas wasn’t a foreign country, but it was foreign enough. And it was deep country, southern through and through. We were only stopping off for a year, but I didn’t know that at the time. Mom and dad both worked. All four of us children went to school. Life was fairly normal, except for the funny way people talked. I didn’t suspect a thing.

I’m sure that there must have been discussions and family planning. We were a fairly close-knit crew and the folks liked to involve us in the overall efforts. But I was only six when preparations were under way, so I’m certain I missed a memo or two. When dad crated up his rifles and stereo equipment, I should have realized that a big change was coming. But my imagination wasn’t sufficiently developed to envision the grand adventure they had in mind. Even now, with an additional forty-three years of life behind me, I shake my head in disbelief.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up in the back of the pick-up truck. Dad drove us to Michigan for a visit with my oldest brother, Ronald. The third oldest boy, Michael, made a surprise appearance. When dad sold him the truck, I should have been worried. But when you’re six years’ old and your family goes on a shopping spree inside a camping store, it’s like Christmas. Me worry? Whatever for? Like the rest of them, I was outfitted with a backpack, sleeping bag, canteen, mess kit, and poncho. Aside from the one instance when I happened to send a fish hook through my hand, my limited experience had taught me that camping was fun. My limits were about to be expanded.

What remained of our essential possessions was loaded up into our backpacks. I don’t know exactly where our walk began, though I doubt it was Ann Arbor. I have no doubt of where we wound up, which was Kennedy Airport in New York. To get there, we walked through a substantial length of Pennsylvania, much of it under the shower of September rains. My father had just turned forty, my mother forty-two. The children they were leading – Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me – were twelve, ten, eight, and six respectively. As the youngest, I undoubtedly had the lightest pack. Even so, it was an easy twenty pounds. We hiked for three weeks to catch our plane to Spain.

Our trek bears little resemblance to those taken by individuals and families south of the border making their way into America. We weren’t aliens, illegal or otherwise, walking on the rugged trails of this land. We were Americans. I think that most native born US citizens lack a perspective to truly appreciate what that means. We walked through town and country, secure in our persons and belongings. No coyotes led the way. No brigands blocked it. And no one asked for papers or identification until it came time to depart our shores.

After a couple of stops along the way, we arrived on the plain in Spain where the rain mainly came. My folks had settled on Castellon de la Plana as the new place to call home based on a recommendation from a fellow traveler newly met. Their intentions became clear. We were still Americans, but we hadn’t come to Spain to visit. We had come to assimilate. We had come to live as Spaniards. They had no jobs, no contacts, but some capital. None of us spoke Spanish. And we freedom-breathing inheritors of the liberty bought with the blood of the Founders and those they led were living in the last, and longest lasting, Fascist dictatorship in Europe.

By all accounts, assimilation was traumatic. My mother often commented that I did nothing but cry for the first six months, after which I could speak no English. I can recall entering the first grade with much trepidation. One of those early days stands out among the others. My classmates were all lined up to read to the teacher. I followed suit with my book. When my turn came, he looked at me and underlined a word. I had no idea. I couldn’t speak the language, let alone read it. He underlined another word. Nope. He looked at me and motioned me back to my seat with his aquiline nose. Stupid American.

This scene would ironically repeat itself nearly five years later. Francoist Spain had begun to lighten its restrictions on the use of the regional dialects of Spain.[1] During my final year there, my school was offering a class in Valencian, the local dialect, after regular school hours as an elective. My brother Timothy was very excited about this class, not so much for its historic or political implications but mostly it offered him an opportunity to catch up to our older brother Eric who already had a fair mastery of it. Timothy convinced me to go with him, even though the course had begun weeks before and despite the fact that after being in school from eight in the morning until six in the evening, all I wanted to do was go home.

I walked into the class room only to discover that the man teaching was none other than my first grade teacher. The kids stood in line to read. I followed suit. He underlined the phrases I had written in my notebook. I could copy the words from the chalkboard, but I couldn’t read them. He looked at me and shook his head. Back to your seat, stupid American. No worries, Maestro, I’d be back in America sooner than I knew.

Despite the level of assimilation we had attained in five years’ time, the fact remained that we were foreigners in a land in transition. When Francisco Franco died and Juan Carlos reestablished the monarchy, my father decided it was time to leave. This caused no small tension in the household as my mother wanted us to depart together and he wanted her to leave first. Their marriage had frayed somewhat in those years. Not only did she not want to leave; she was afraid that if she left alone my father could sue for divorce under Spanish law and claim abandonment, thus automatically gaining full custody of the children. So when she left, she took me with her as insurance. I was oblivious to of all this at the time. I only knew that we were packing. And I allowed myself to believe it was only for a trip, not a move.

My vacation fantasy came to an abrupt end once we arrived in Arkansas and my mother registered me in school.  School meant move. School meant stay. We were going to live in America, not just visit. The culture, friends, language, and life I had known along with its dreams, aspirations, and loves were now truly out of reach. I wouldn’t step foot back in Spain for another thirty years. Had I realized that then, I would have cried more than I did.

What does the Arkansas school system do with an eleven year old boy that speaks with a Spanish accent and is illiterate in his native tongue? They put him in with the group of kids with learning disabilities. We didn’t call it that in those days. Back then, the term “retarded” was still allowed in polite company. Sit with the pantwetters in the back of the class, stupid Spaniard. I think I may have put up with it for almost three weeks. The morning my teacher found me seated at the front of the class, she asked me why I wasn’t in the back with the special group. “Because I can read better than they can,” I told her flatly. She didn’t argue the point.

The transformation from American to Spaniard was painless compared to the forced assimilation of a Spanish boy into American culture. My early scholastic interests in science and mathematics were overwhelmed by the necessities of English mastery. As I fought with near hatred to become literate in  English, my brain decided to translate five years of memory from Spanish to English without even asking my permission. In my efforts to relearn my native tongue, the one nearest to my heart faded into hidden closets of my mind that took me years to locate.

It was difficult, but eventually I settled in. I even managed to develop a bit of a southern drawl. Those formidable years in Spain had set me, however, as sure as the kiln the clay. I love this country, but there is a part of me that never feels at home here. To make matters worse, the Spain I knew – a time capsule of 1940s Europe – is no more. It will require nothing short of an apocalyptic event for me to finally be at home.

Immigration is full of promise and pain. I lived through it twice before I was twelve and the experience defines me to this day. As I listen to our leaders and pundits argue over the current state of our immigration policy – and even add my voice to the fray – I have to remind myself of the boy I was. Immigrants aren’t a faceless horde swarming like a plague of locusts over amber waves of grain. They are people; each with their own story, each with their own pain, each come to the greatest nation on earth. I pray we deal with them wisely and with compassion.

[1] Spanish in Spain is known as castellano, Castilian. It is actually the dominant Romance language of the central part of the peninsula. Francisco Franco mandated that it become the only official language of the country when he came to power. He essentially outlawed the use of the other regional dialects and languages.