Jesse Rodriguez, the new Proviso High Schools District 209 superintendent, was born in Puerto Rico and lived there until he was 14. Therefore, although he’s completely bilingual, he speaks English with an accent.
I looked online to comments posted there while he was being interviewed, and one woman objected to his being hired because of his accent. She said she had to work hard to understand him.
So Dr. Rodriguez and I made quite a pair when I was interviewing him. I had to ask him to spell a few words which I couldn’t understand because of his Puerto Rican accent, and he had to ask me to repeat several sentences because I have trouble pronouncing certain letters due to my neurological disorder.
The woman who objected to his being hired was right about one thing. We have to work harder to understand folks who come from different cultures. What she was wrong about is that he shouldn’t be hired for that reason.
For one thing, according to an issue of the Village Free Press, dated November 2013, Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in Maywood. They — or better yet, we — had better get used to hearing, “Buenos dias, como estas?” as we go about our daily business.
Another, and more important, thing is that if we want to make this multicultural thing work in Forest Park and Proviso Township District 209, we need to accept the reality that communicating and working with people from other cultures requires some extra work.
Sometimes the work can be funny. For example, many of you know that I belong to a Thai congregation and are also aware that Thais often mix up the English letters “L” and “R.” The word English can come out of a Thai mouth as “Engrish” and flower can come out “frower.” One day, Pastor Pongsak was getting frustrated trying to teach me how to do something on my computer and finally in exasperation he said, “Sometimes you just have to ‘pray’ with it.” On another occasion, a Thai pilot came on the intercom as we were taxing to the terminal and said, “I hope you had a nice ‘fright.'”
One time when I was in Thailand I tried to communicate to a tuk tuk driver in my best Thai where I wanted to go. When he couldn’t understand my “accent,” he ran and got another guy to help. Pretty soon 10 people were gathered around the little three-wheeled taxi trying to figure out what this farang (foreigner) was trying to communicate. When someone finally understood, there were smiles and handshakes all around.
A few years ago, Rev. George Omwando became the pastor of St. Catherine/St. Lucy Parish in Oak Park right on Austin Boulevard. Understanding that he spoke English with an accent, he began his first homily by saying that since he was born in Kenya he was going to teach them how to say something in Swahili and asked the parishioners to repeat after him, “Hakuna Matata.” “That’s good,” he told them after their second try and with a big smile added, “But you have an accent!”
The church erupted in laughter. They enjoyed their new pastor’s sense of humor, but they also understood his point. In a genuinely multicultural church, everyone is from “another culture.” Everyone, as it were, has an accent. Fr. Omwando’s new parish, right on the border between Chicago and Oak Park, has a long history of living in the midst of change and diversity. The longtime members know from experience how difficult it is to hold a parish together when the members see reality through many different cultural lenses.
Hakuna Matata means “no problem” in Swahili. As they learn to say a few phrases in yet another language the members of that faith community continue to try to accept and even celebrate the different accents they hear in and around their community of faith.
Sebastian Junger wrote a book titled, Tribe – On Homecoming and Belonging, in which he argued that everyone needs to belong to a “tribe,” i.e. a group in which you don’t have to work so hard because you are all on the same page culturally. That’s part of the reason why members of my Thai church will drive all the way from Zion to the north and Palos to the south on a Sunday. Clearly, it is more comfortable and less work to hang with people from the same tribe who think, believe, speak and behave as you do. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s essential for our psychological/spiritual well-being.
On the other hand, what is essential for our community’s and nation’s well-being is that we be committed to getting out of our tribal comfort zones where we can do the work of being with people from other tribes who speak with accents different from our own.
And thereby learn to enjoy connecting with people who are different.