As a student at Robertson High School, I learned a lesson from Ms. Florence Hernandez (my literature teacher) that has been especially poignant through my 15-year journalism career.
It was Ms. Hernandez’ theory that the more languages a person knows, the more valuable they are. Following that lesson, I felt pretty puffed full of pride to know that as an English and Spanish speaker I was worth two people according to her theory. That is until one of my classmates proclaimed they spoke English, Spanish and French.
My fluency in English and Spanish has proven to be quite valuable. I have worked in newsrooms in Albuquerque , Los Angeles , Raleigh, North Carolina and San Francisco, and my language skills have always come in handy.
While in Los Angeles I even developed a specialty: immigration reporting. I was always intrigued by Latinos in L.A. who were surprised I spoke Spanish so well. My name may give away my heritage, but I don’t look especially “Latino.” I’m pretty fair skinned and have European features. In fact, my older brother has red hair. I don’t look all that out of place in good ole’ Las Vegas, where those of us of Spanish heritage look pretty similar. But in Los Angeles, I look like a white guy.
From Los Angeles I went on to North Carolina . In Raleigh, I was one of four Spanish-speaking reporters in the whole city. It was an interesting experience to be so far from the comforts of home. Green chilé is very much a novelty in North Carolina .
In New Mexico and much of the Southwest, Latinos occupy and sometimes dominate leadership roles in corporations, politics and culture. But North Carolina is a very different situation. There are only a few leaders who have made their way into the state’s power structure. For the most part, much of the Latino community is made up of immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
In North Carolina I became very aware of the immigrant’s experience. I saw first-hand how much people work to support their families back home. Much of North Carolina has been built over the last 10 years through immigrant labor. And as a major agricultural producer, North Carolina ’s hog farms, chicken factories, and tobacco fields are powered by immigrant labor.
With any story, a reporter strives to be objective. For me, part of that objectivity came from an odd elitism I learned growing up in Las Vegas. My mom always taught us that we are not Mexican, we are Spanish. And of course her lesson was re-enforced every year during the 4th of July Fiestas as men and women lead the parade in Conquistador costumes.
Over the years I challenged my mom on the historical accuracy of this. But as a reporter, covering the immigration beat, it actually helped to separate myself from the people I was covering. I created a dispassionate objectivity. After all, I am not an immigrant. And I don’t come from an immigrant family.
But it wasn’t until this month that the furor over immigration reform actually struck me personally. The state of Arizona passed a potentially draconian law to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Police may soon be able to stop people they “suspect” are in the country illegally and arrest them.
Last year, my youngest brother and his wife moved to Arizona. He and his wife are raising their beautiful daughter there.
So when this law passed, I immediately thought of him. We come from a family that has been here for generations. Like many proud New Mexicans, we often proclaim that our family did not cross the border, it crossed us. But an overzealous police officer in Arizona with new powers of arrest does not know that.
Suddenly the elitism I used to separate myself from the people I’ve covered flew out the widow.
I told you before that my oldest brother is a red head, and fair skinned like I am. But my youngest brother is darker, and has more Mestizo features. And of course, he has a pretty heavy Las Vegas accent (“eeee no bro, that’s messed up”).
Under this law, an immigrant is supposed to produce proof that they are in the country legally. Proof includes immigration papers, a passport, a visa and other documentation.
So what should my brother do if he is stopped by an Arizona police officer? He does not have immigration papers or a Visa, because he is not an immigrant. I’m not sure if he has a Passport (most of us don’t). He does have a New Mexico birth certificate, and a Social Security card, but I’m positive he doesn’t carry those around with him.
As a journalist I have never taken sides on the immigration debate. But with this particular law, I can honestly say I am concerned about the affect it could have on my family. Chances are my brother may never have a brush with an officer because of this law. But I have prepared myself just in-case I get a phone call that he has been detained because he could not produce proper documents. In the United States of America, that is a fear my brother, his wife, their child, and the rest of my family should not have to endure.
Sergio Quintana is a Robertson High School graduate who lives in San Francisco, Calif. He may be reached at SergioQ154@yahoo.com.