It doesn’t matter the language you speak
If it’s a meat cutting job that you seek
English won’t vanish
It displaces Spanish,
Disappearing with nary a squeak
At dinner this evening we spoke with another couple. The male had attended a one-room school; there were twenty-two students in eight grades, the eighteen-year-old teacher finished high school, and the two German students didn’t speak English. “No ESL then, I’ll tell ya’.”
A few months ago a major pork processing plant in Sioux City, John Morrell, closed. The outdated physical building lost efficiency compared to new buildings; we all knew it was only a matter of time and wondered that it took so long. Sioux City has depended on meatpacking for more than a hundred years; the business model has changed a great deal in that time, but the nature of the work hasn’t changed much. The labor-intensive activity of turning a hog into pork chops, ham, bacon, and sausage is still cold, dirty, and boring. You can earn a living wage without English. It has been an attractive occupation for some in the deaf community.
Our town has depended on waves of emigrants since the 1880’s. Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Greeks, Lithuanians, Syrians, southeast Asians, Hispanics and most recently Somalis came to the slaughterhouses to work. They faced discrimination and prejudice, and the rhetoric has changed very little since the beginning.
Mostly I hear monolingual Americans complaining about the largest, most recent wave of immigrants, the Hispanics, in linguistic terms. Stereotypes, even negative ones, dwell on hardworking people with close family connections. “Let ‘em learn English,” I hear; “I don’t want ‘Press one for English.’”
Before the dinner conversation degenerated I said, “You know, being a capitalist, where other people object to linguistic accommodation, I see a market opportunity.”
Bringing capitalism in a conversation with patriotic people usually puts a new spin on things. “I speak Spanish,” I said. “When I left my practice after twenty-three years I was doing half my business in Spanish, and man, have I seen the changes. Twenty years ago a person with a Hispanic last name generally didn’t speak English at all, but had a big wad of bills in their pocket, and expected to pay cash. And when they did that, they took my advice. I’d say ‘Quit smoking and drinking,’ and they’d quit smoking and drinking.”
The other people looked at me in amazement. I thought they were going to ask me patients taking my advice but the lady said, “You speak Spanish?”
“I hit fluent forty years ago and I’ve just kept getting better since,” I said, “And really, we’re talking about hard-working people who would really like to speak English, but they don’t have the time to learn because they’re working overtime and irregular shifts in jobs that a lot of other people wouldn’t do. Besides, it gives my wife and daughter work; they’re teaching English as a Second Language through the Community College.”
In fact, Spanish is an endangered language here. The first child is bilingual, and teaches the younger siblings English. Frequently the youngest child can’t speak Spanish and can’t talk with the parents.