Column: UnderCurrents: We Are All Immigrants, Legal or Illegal

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 12, 2006

Sometime in the late 1970s, I drove with a friend to visit her family home in Gramercy, a small Mississippi River town not far from New Orleans. Fate takes odd turns. I knew less about my own family history at the time, but I later learned that Gramercy is in St. James Parish, the Louisiana county that my father’s people stopped in for a time on their way from Senegambia to Oakland. 

One evening my friend and her uncle and I went to a local bar for beer-and-crawfish, a local favorite, and while we were waiting for our order the uncle pointed out a row of men sitting at the bar. “You’re a stranger in town,” he said, “so they’re talking about you.” Of course, I tried to pick out their conversation. It all seemed like gibberish. I could pick out words and a couple of phrases but all out of order, like a jigsaw puzzle that had been scattered over the floor. Seeing my confusion—which was the whole point of his comment—the uncle broke out laughing. “You can’t understand them, can you?” he said. I shook my head, no. “Ain’t your fault,” he said. “They’re running through three languages, over there. Creole, English, and French. You don’t speak French, do you?” 

I didn’t. The uncle did, as did most people of a certain age, both black and white, in that part of lower Louisiana, the last echo of the long years when the French colonized that part of the country, as the English had done in the rest. The uncle lamented that he was one of the last to grow up learning French. His brother, only a few years younger, had been discouraged from the practice by teachers and community leaders seeking to assimilate children into the English-speaking world. Today, that language has virtually disappeared from Louisiana, except in colorful street names. A shame. 

Creole is still around, because unlike the classical languages, it adapts and morphs into something else, sometimes unrecognizable from its origins. Creole is like the blue notes in jazz, which bended tones between the African and European scales that existed in neither, creating modern music. In acting as a bridge between French-English and the various language spoken by African captives brought to Louisiana, Creole developed into a separate language itself. My cousin, Betty Reid Soskin, who grew up in Oakland but spent many summers visiting St. James Parish in her childhood, says that all of the family elders spoke Creole, and she can still roll off a few phrases, herself, if you give her encouragement. My mother used to say that my grandfather spoke with a mild French accent, though he passed away so long ago that I can scarcely remember how it sounded. 

I wish, now, that I had been old enough to have learned Creole and French from my grandfather and other family members. I wish I could have been able to pass that language down to my own children and grandchildren. I view that sadly, with a great sense of loss. 

Multilingualism among African immigrants to America was not confined to Louisiana, of course, though you’d never know it from present common knowledge. Along the South Carolina coast, they give that English-African bridge language another name, Gullah, and it is seen as something as an abberation. Actually, it wasn’t. If your exposure to the speech of the slaverytime African peoples is limited to the dialogue in the movie Gone With The Wind, you probably think that everyone in the Quarters spoke English only, with a mid-Georgia accent. A better depiction of African-American speech in the 18th and 19th centuries would be Haile Gerima’s Sankofa, which shows a delicious musical blend of language and dialect from various parts of African, Europe, and the Caribbean all going on at one time, mixed together like a good gumbo stew. 

The African effect on American culture was so enormous—in music and speech and style and dress and even how we worship our various gods—that even the African descendants tend to lose sight of its origins, and so sometimes fail to recognize when the same process is happening with other peoples. 

Such as with our Mexican brothers and sisters. And that brings us to part two of today’s discussion, sparked by the recent Mexican pride demonstrations which were in turn sparked by the call to turn illegal immigrants into felons. 

Although it is easy to find reasons, it is difficult to locate reason in the increasing hue and cry in the country over the growing presence of Mexican illegals in our midst. 

In trying to understand the concern over Mexican “illegals,” I find it hard to determine whether my own ancestors were “legal” or “illegal” immigrants to this country. Those who were brought in after the abolishment of the slave trade in the early 19th century were “illegals,” certainly, since the slave trade itself was declared illegal, but those of my family captured on the African continent and enslaved and then brought to America before that time were “legal.” It seems a ghastly perversion of that term, though, as if “legal” somehow equates with “moral,” or even just plain “right.” Enslaved African people were never called “illegals” in this country, regardless of when they came here. They were simply called “slaves” or, if they declined the offer to remain in the service of their enslavers, “runaways.” During the Civil War, when folks bolted from the plantations en masse to follow around the campaigning Union armies, they were called “contraband.” And through it all they—we—retained the term “niggers,” even down to today. 

Referring to Mexican immigrants who come here without the proper clearance and papers as “illegals” seems to be along that same pattern; a not-so-subtle dehumanization of humans by referring to them by some imposed condition, rather than by their actual names. 

So, too, is concern over their speaking of Spanish rather than English as their first language. 

It is interesting that someone speaking English with a deep Spanish accent is often considered crude and backwards, as opposed to someone speaking English with a French accent, who used to be considered “cultured,” at least in the days before the Iraq invasion when so many of our citizens got pissed off with the French (my great-grandmother, Mamá Breaux Allen, who spoke mostly French and Creole in her St. James Parish home, would have found it ironic, I am sure, how the speaking of French went from out of favor to in favor back to out again, seemingly at whim). Whatever the case, speaking English with a deep Spanish accent (or a Tagalog or Vietnamese or Cantonese accent, for that matter) usually means that the speaker is able to speak in two languages rather than one, even if they have not quite mastered the second, a sign that ought to connote ability, rather than disability. Interesting how we seem to have turned that around into making it a sign of ignorance. 

If I were a professional educator, which I am not, I would design an elementary school curriculum in which the kids speaking Spanish or Vietnamese or whatever as a first language would get paired up with kids speaking English as a first language, sort of like you pair up in a science experiment. Each student would help the other student in the pair learn their native language so that rather than ending up with only one language being spoken—English—each student would end up with two. It seems an awful waste of resources, having so many neighbors in our midst speaking another language and urging them to give up the speaking of it rather than encouraging them to teach theirs to us while we teach ours to them. 

Meanwhile, there is tremendous energy and opportunity in this new surge by our Mexican brothers and sisters to assert themselves, an echo of the great Black civil rights and Black Freedom movements in which many of us grew up. And just as those movements transformed this country into a much better place, I expect that this new Mexican movement—whatever it comes to be called—will probably eventually do the same, if we give it help. 

These are just some preliminary thoughts during the course of what should be a long and thoughtful discussion. In the two great bodies of ethnic people that make up so much of Oakland and the East Bay—those who came here from Africa with stops in the Deep South plantations, and those who come from Mexico to a place that only recently stopped being Mexico—I find myself seeing far more similarities than I do differences. 

“Legal” or “illegal,” however we are called, we are immigrants, all.