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Stateside with Rosalea: Household Spanish

"In an unprecedented event in Mexico's history, this past Tuesday the Mexican Senate denied President Vicente Fox Quesada permission to travel to Canada and the Western United States." So began the email sent on Friday night to subscribers to the Commonwealth Club's newsletter. The Commonwealth Club of California's website says it is "the nation's oldest and largest public affairs forum". It arranges regular talks by interesting speakers at several venues around the Bay Area for its members. On Tuesday, instead of El Presidente, the Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Castaneda will speak about "Renewing a Mexican and American Partnership" to an audience paying $65 a head at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. I've never quite figured if the Commonwealth Club leans left or right - they seem to have a pretty eclectic range of speakers, and usually the cost is just $10 for members.

Not that there is any connection, but this week I happened to get in the mail an envelope with the following plea on the outside: Help stop reckless immigration policies that have proven dangerous to us all. It was a begging letter from Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), and enclosed the script for their tv ad campaign. Here's a sample: Video - open on American flag slowly blowing in the breeze. Music up and under throughout. Anncr: "Old Glory has overcome adversity for over two hundred years... Call Lois Capps. Tell her Congress must limit immigration NOW. Do it for Old Glory."

Capps is a Democratic congresswoman seeking re-election in November in Southern California. The ellipsis above substitutes for images of wounded WWII soldiers, big-eyed starving children of the Great Depression, and a black graphic saying "September 11, 2001" which dissolves back to the flag and the caption: Limit Immigration Now. The accompanying letter refers to how the carelessness of the INS led to "horrendous damage and grief", and contains an underlined sentence stating that INS officials "said they could not find entry records for six of the terrorists" - the implication being incompetence, though there could be another explanation.

Most of the letter is about how an amnesty and/or guest worker programme proposed by the Bush administration last year for as many as 8.7 million illegal immigrants would lead to a population surge of some 27 million additional inhabitants once their immediate families arrive here too. Says CAPS: "Both proposals harm those Americans who can afford it the least: the poorest segment of our population." Which brings me neatly back to the title of this column, also the title of a book I saw in the languages section of a bookshop the other day. 'Household Spanish' contains useful phrases for employers to use when asking their Spanish-speaking servants - housekeepers, gardeners, handymen - to perform some task.

A listing of the top 20 countries of birth for U.S. immigrants in 1998, published in the 'NY Times Almanac 2002', shows that more immigrants came from Mexico than from the next three countries combined - mainland China, India and the Philippines. According to the same source, demographers project that by 2040 the majority of Californians will be Hispanic (a Nixon-era census term, often found offensive by the very people it refers to from Central and South America and the Caribbean).

With population figures like that looming, it was little wonder that in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination in the March primary Governor Gray Davis spouted some embarrassingly schoolbook Spanish. Over in Texas, the Democratic nominee for Governor is Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez. An article in this month's 'Hispanic Business' characterises Sanchez's win in the March primary as "Wealthy political neophyte breezes past primary challenger" - a phrase that could be equally applied to Bill Simon's win in the Republican primary in California. We can expect a lot of media interest in those two gubernatorial election campaigns and in the results.

For my money the most interesting election story will be the lock-out of Peter Camejo from the media spotlight, as will inevitably be the case. He is the Green Party candidate for Governor of California. Characterised in 1968 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan as "one of the ten most dangerous people in California", perhaps because of his pro-civil rights, anti-war activism, Camejo ran for President in 1976 as a socialist, gaining ballot status in 30 states. Among other things, he has worked to defend the rights of Latino workers in the US and to free political prisoners in Latin America, and promotes socially responsible investments that also meet environmentally sound criteria. Camejo speaks fluent Spanish and English, being a first-generation Venezuelan-American.

On another - unrelated - tangent, you do remember Venezuala, don't you? That would be the country where in 1992 Hugo Chavez led an unsuccessful coup by soldiers angered over connections between high-ranking officers and drug traffickers. Six years later he gained power via the ballot box and had that power confirmed in August 2000 elections. Keen to see the Venezuelan people benefit from their bounteous share of what one of his countrymen once called "the devil's excrement", Chavez travelled to OPEC nations (including Iraq) to ask them to cut oil production. Then he sold cheap oil to Castro's Cuba and tried to privatise the oil industry in Venezuela. Little wonder the last we've seen of him is the back of his head as he was driven away by the army that overthrew him this week.

A little graphic at the bottom of the tv news screen this morning said it all: US supports change of government in Venezuela. Be it known, dear neighbours, that "US" does not mean all of "us"; just the US administration that resulted from our own little fascist coup in November 2000. "Make no mistake, that's what it was," I have been assured by a Latin American acquaintance who has lived through these things. OK, so he was a poet and might have been exercising some poetic licence, but I trust you get the picture.

And one last thing, just because it's so damned fascinating. The FBI files on John Steinbeck have become available on-line through the Freedom of Information Act, and they make fascinating reading. Steinbeck's wife was a registered communist, and the author himself was under investigation for having written such a fierce condemnation of the living conditions of agricultural workers as "The Grapes of Wrath". I am particularly taken with Agent Shields' report of his 1943 interview with a Miss Barbara Burke regarding Steinbeck.

Burke bought Steinbeck's first house in Los Gatos and "became intimately acquainted as the Subject lived on the premises for a short time thereafter." The report goes on to state concisely what this acquaintance said about Steinbeck and his voting record, his drinking habits, and his political philosophy, which Burke considered to be "merely 'leftish' in the social changes calculated to improve the conditions of the working classes, and [she] felt Subject's integrity to be unimpeachable."

The website for this fascinating reading is at

Lea Barker
Saturday, April 13, 2002

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